The long history of cultural contact between the United States of America and the developing world is interesting, varied, colourful, and often charged with controversy. Several and many-sided has been the speculation about imperialistic designs, political purposes and sometimes commercial interests served by cultural initiatives. The world’s political and diplomatic configuration has changed significantly since the making of the famous film, but, particularly given today’s explosive issues in the Middle East, the image of The Ugly American still looms large. No doubt, since the equally famous ‘ping-pong diplomacy,’ somewhere in the American mind has been the intention that meaningful cultural exchanges can help to beautify that image.
America’s relations with the Caribbean, though fraught with political controversies of their own, have never been quite as tense as those in the Far East where The Ugly American was set, or the Middle East where its image has returned. But two things have happened: the images have resounded in the region, and the region has felt the after-shocks of those more violent relations elsewhere. Politics and culture don’t ever separate. A cynical picture of cultural contact between the USA and Palestine is the recurring image of Palestinian boys, with Edward Said in their midst, hurling stones at their antagonists across the battle lines. That was in amusing contrast to Said, some time spokesman for Yasser Arafat, comfortably settled on the Columbia University campus, setting the literary world alight with his important and valuable postcolonial theories of Orientalism and whatever else.
There was great speculation in Guyana in the middle 1990s when the USIS and JFK Library were closed. With the Cold War behind them and the significant global warming that had thawed relations between the Eagle and the Hammer and the Sickle, American cultural policy in the Caribbean had changed, resulting in a huge cut in the budget. So many arms of cultural propaganda were no longer necessary in the region.
Some other things, however, have not changed, and may they never do. The best propaganda is the real depth of information that can be gleaned from genuine cultural exchanges between nations and between peoples. May they live long so that ugly images may change. Culture can aid diplomacy because of the currency of its international language; may it continue, so that instead of global warming there can be changes of similar temperature among peoples and cultures of the east and the west.
The Ambassador of the United States of America hosted a musical recital on the evening of October 16 in which American Donald Ryan, in collaboration with Greg Lynch, performed. Theirs was an international language that has suffered no change, and apart from the delight it afforded the audience, allowed some reflection on a rich series of cultural exchanges that is now continuing.
The Embassy of the USA, like almost every other embassy and high commission represented in Guyana, has a history of cultural exchange and, in particular, a programme of exhibitions in the arts including visiting delegations in the performing arts. These might have been more frequent while the USIS and the JFK Library were still in operation and there was a Cultural Ambassadors programme which brought many excellent performers – mainly singers and musicians – for concerts in Guyana. More recently it waned and has been at best sporadic, but it never ended.
The Donald Ryan and Greg Lynch recital was the latest renewal of these visits hosted by the Ambassador. It is of interest that Ryan is widely regarded as ‘a special events pianist’ who has played for heads of state and other dignitaries and he did justice to that reputation on this occasion. He is accomplished and very versatile, offering a variety of pieces of different types, moods and pace, while Lynch, an equally complete violinist, accompanied him in a few of the selections.
Ryan, who was born in Trinidad, is known in the music world for his mastery of the keyboard which has won him awards and prizes for “the playing of the classical repertory” and honours from the Trinity Music School in London. He also studied at Oral Roberts University, where he is now an Adjunct Professor, and the University of Tulsa in the USA. In addition, he is said to have “few peers in the realm of improvisation,” and has performed and recorded with renowned bass-baritone Simon Estes to much critical acclaim.
Lynch is a professional violinist in north-eastern Oklahoma, and has been a full-time member of the Tulsa Philharmonic and a frequent performer with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra. He has a Master of Music degree from Ball State University and “has led various ensembles to provide a wide range of styles including pop, classical and jazz.”
Ryan played a number of classical pieces, including the work of Rachmaninoff, always vibrant for piano and exciting for the audience. His Rachmaninoff selection here was Prelude G Minor. He continued with Chopin, another favourite from the classics and a composer with whom he has very special associations. He was the winner of the Madeyska Award at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1975 where he “made such an impression” that he was asked to participate in a television documentary on the life of Chopin and to perform at the composer’s birthplace. He played to great acclaim at several recitals in and around Warsaw. In October in Georgetown, Ryan played Chopin’s Opus 10: Number 3 – E Major, Number 4 – C Sharp Minor, Number 11 – E Flat Major and Number 12 – C Minor.
Lynch then joined him in a selection from the music of the highly celebrated but enigmatic genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the first movement from Sonata Number 4 in E Minor. The two also played together in Meditation from Thais by J Massenet. Although they collaborated flawlessly in this music, they pursue quite separate careers as professional musicians.
Ryan exhibited his versatility and his interest in different musical traditions and mixtures of strains including the popular, the Latin and the Caribbean. His other selections reflected this range as he continued with Solace and Maple Leaf Rag, both by Scott Joplin, switching to Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars followed by Desafinado, both by Antonio Carlos Jobin.
In performing in Georgetown, Ryan had, in a sense, come full circle after decades of playing to what has been described as “fervent applause” in the major concert halls of the world – Germany, Switzerland, Poland, France, Australia, Spain and the Caribbean. It was a rewarding return to the region where he started his music. The recital was very well received, even more so because the audience would have appreciated the virtuoso performance of Ryan and Lynch for more than the excellence of the music and the rare entertainment it afforded them.
It was an especially welcome return to the concert hall for an audience that would undoubtedly wish there were more occasions of its kind. They would also hope it sparks a revival, not only in the frequency of visiting artists, but in similar recitals by local musicians as well. The US Embassy has made another useful and timely contribution to the arts in the kind of cultural diplomacy that can only, beyond and in spite of all else, be gainful in any climate anywhere.