At his inauguration, Donald Trump stated that the American government “will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first."
Exactly one year later, the federal government was on the brink of a shutdown—a fact Bay Area band The Brothers Comatose only learned the night before they left on a three week tour of China sponsored by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). They were told that if the shutdown went into effect—and it did—U.S. State Department officials in China would be legally unable to meet them.
“We [were] freaking out,” says Ben Morrison, who started the 5-piece band in 2008 with his brother Alex. “I mean, we show up dead of night on an airplane, don’t know where we’re going, don’t know any of the language whatsoever, how to get around, or where we’re supposed to be.”
The program, called American Music Abroad (AMA) in its current iteration, is rooted in an effort from the 1950s to show a more appealing version of America than what may have reached the program's targeted countries. In the early days it was all jazz: Dizzy Gillespie in Pakistan, Louis Armstrong in Egypt, Dave Brubeck in Iraq. You may have seen the pictures.
Today it is administered via grant funding by the nonprofit American Voices (AV). Each of AV’s many similar projects uses music “as a tool for greater cultural dialogue,” program manager Mickey Davis told me by phone. With AMA, the goal is to deepen cross-cultural communication and collaboration through music, especially in those places least likely to have access to American popular music.
At first, this was discordant to me. President Trump’s "America First" foreign policy has been the impetus for withdrawing from trade and climate agreements; instituting a travel ban on majority-Muslim nations; and implementing a zero-tolerance border policy that has left more than 2,000 children separated from their parents. It’s been used to alienate close allies and make bullish threats of nuclear annihilation. Most recently, it has fueled the opening shots of a trade war with China, as tariffs have been placed on $84 billion worth of Chinese imports, ironically, at least partially in retaliation for China’s own version of America First, the Made in China 2025 initiative.
If our foreign policy has become about isolating ourselves and breaking connections, how did a rowdy, shaggy-haired, mustachioed, skinny jean- and trucker–hat-wearing, Trump-disapproving, crowd-pleasing bluegrass band—so adept at winning over audiences and making friends—come to represent America? How did they feel about it? And can individual connections overwrite the divisive actions of governments?
Hundreds of bands apply to AMA each year. Fifty are invited to audition in person. Ten to fifteen are selected. The finalists then fly to Washington D.C. for two to three days of training in representing America abroad before heading off on their tour. American Voices works as liaison between the embassies, local partners and the bands. “The public-facing diplomacy is really this people-to-people connection,” says Davis.
Liaoning province, the Brothers’ first stop, is northeast of Beijing, bordering North Korea. The January weather in Changchun and Shenyang was bitterly cold, regularly reaching lows of negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This was an utter shock to the system for Morrison. “I grew up in the Bay Area. I’ve never felt anything like that in my entire life," he says. "I couldn’t function at all.”
Once they’d been advised of restrictions on freedom of expression and possible infiltration of electronic devices, Chinese officials required the Brothers to submit the lyrics and recordings of each song they’d play on this leg of the tour, as well as transcripts of everything they planned to say in between songs at their official shows. (The officials denied two songs without providing an explanation: “Angeline” and “The Way The West Was Won.")
Luckily, those officials also stepped up when the American government shutdown stranded the Brothers. Chinese officials greeted them at the airport, and guided the band through their itinerary for the first few days until the U.S. government shifted back into action.
The affable band, referred to as cowboys by onlookers, say they were greeted warmly and with curiosity wherever they went. The Brothers, for their part, were ready for anything. “We were eating bugs, and scorpions, and worms, and pig brain, rooster beak and all sorts of odd and sometimes delicious stuff,” Morrison tells me. “Going in with a sense of adventure was important to us.”
Collaborative performances were a key part of the trip; they were where the Brothers were able to foster a deeper sense of cultural exchange. Here, Morrison experienced a second form of culture shock, this one musical. Where improvisation, adherence to specific time signatures and three-part harmonies surprised and confused their Chinese counterparts, the lack of these elements surprised the Brothers.
“There’s a song called 'Lotus Flower,'" Morrison says. “It’s a traditional Chinese song. It’s beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. We played it with three different people, and it was three different animals, just the timing and the flow of how it went. We just couldn’t figure it out or follow along.”
To explain this, the bandmates were told that “music flows like nature flows," Morrison recalls. "There’s all different sizes of lotus flowers out in nature. So the song, it changes. It can change like nature can change. I’ve never thought of anything like that before.”
The Brothers Comatose's second stop was much further south, in Yunan Province. The band visited Kunming and smaller surrounding towns, playing, collaborating and experiencing vast cultural differences while seeking common threads. A mini-documentary made in Kunming shows smiling faces jumping, bobbing and dancing around campfires. In it, bassist Gio Benedetti says, “I couldn’t talk to anybody, but we could play music and dance and have a good time. I feel like that was the best example of our musical cultures coming together.”
Both the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and American Voices diplomatically declined to answer foreign policy questions outright. Jay Raman, director of cultural programs at ECA says the program will “continue building enduring partnerships that improve foreign relations and strengthen the national security of the United States.”
AV program manager Davis, who also worked as the Brothers’ tour manager in China, sees it on a more personal level. "There’s a lot to be said for the power of music and the power of leading with music. There’s a sort of bond that’s created through playing music together or sharing music that can then lead to more larger cultural conversations. That doesn’t necessarily always happen, but when it does it’s done in a way that’s organic and open.”
Morrison related another moment that made a lasting impression on the Brothers, this one around a song called “Horse Race.” An ancient Chinese melody, the song bears incredible resemblance to Celtic, Scottish and early folk tunes that form part of the musical foundation for bluegrass. “We were able to jump in with [the player], and it was this really pumping awesome fiddle song all of a sudden," he says. "This song is a couple thousand years old and played on this erhu, [a traditional Chinese string instrument,] and yet we’re able to come together and create this piece of music that is familiar to us and familiar to them.”
Last month, celebrating 10 years as a band at The Fillmore, The Brothers Comatose invited master erhu player Jiebing Chen on stage to perform bluegrass versions of both “Horse Race” and “Lotus Flower."
At the end of the day, how did it feel to represent America in this tense political moment? Morrison has only good things to say. On the trip to China, music was a way to connect outside of politics. What’s more, he says, “It was a really freeing sort of feeling. It’s hard to not feel helpless here at home unless you’re on the ground [engaged in] grassroots efforts to change things, but you know, we’re touring musicians. We have a different path. For us, we get to go communicate with people in a different sort of way, play music with people and show people that Americans aren’t total assholes."
As Benedetti says in the documentary, “If the two styles want to come together and have it feel cohesive, I think each side needs to, to change their expectations a little bit to be able to meet in the middle.” The two governments would do well to keep this in mind as tensions continue to rise on the geopolitical landscape.
The Brothers Comatose headline the Petaluma Music Festival on Saturday, Aug. 4. They're set to travel with AMA again in the 2018-19 program, along with Bay Area band The T-Sisters.