Musical Diplomacy in Thailand

by Micah Hendler:

The next major stop on our Whiffenpoof tour after Japan was Thailand.  In Thailand, we worked with the State Department to do some cultural diplomacy and exchange through the US Embassy in Bangkok.  Our first event was a big concert at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Many American, Thai, and other foreign dignitaries were in attendance, and speakers included the US Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, and the Thai minister of foreign affairs.

The Whiffenpoofs pose with the US Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, at a cultural diplomacy and exchange event. (Hendler/TYG)

The concert was laden with symbolism, as the Wattana Girls’ Choir performed as well.  Founded in 1874 as the first Christian missionary school for girls in Thailand, Wattana Wittaya Academy is world renowned for its choir, which performed Western classical and contemporary repertoire in flawless English, “Siyahamba” from South Africa, and a medley of Thai folk songs arranged for choral setting.  Their choreography was fun and their costumes were impressive, and both evoked a definitively Thai aesthetic. But unfortunately, although we loved watching them perform there was little facilitated interaction between the two groups, and we didn’t really get to meet them in the way I might have liked.  The musical diplomacy we engaged in at that concert was, I felt, largely symbolic and political in nature. Yet through its symbolism it served an important purpose: bringing together a Thai and an American audience to celebrate the closeness of their relationship, as well as to demonstrate the cultural and  political connectedness between the US and Thailand.

But the real musical work happened in the next three days, as we gave workshops to Thai music students in Bangkok and Hua Hin.  Our workshops covered everything: how we warm up, how we tune chords, how we put together a cappella arrangements, how we imitate different instruments, how we add musicality to our choral songs – I even got to lead two sections on beatboxing! (I know, a terrifying prospect).  There were long periods of Q&A, and for the younger kids, we even had a translator.

In Bangkok, we worked with students at Chulalongkorn University who sang in the school’s choir.  They asked sophisticated questions about our musical process, but also some slightly more personal questions, like “Do any of you have girlfriends?”  We learned that they were excited to sing Handel’s Messiah come December; their conductor, educated at the University of Southern California, felt that as a university choir, they had a responsibility to spread Western classical music to a broader population in Bangkok.  When I asked her about Thai choral repertoire, she remarked that there is really no indigenous Thai choral tradition — although a few Thai composers and arrangers were putting out new works for choir.  One of the students I met, a composer and a Muslim, told me about a cantata he was writing on themes from the Qur’an and classical Arabic poetry.  It was a real musical mix from which we learned a lot.

The Royal Palace in Bangkok glitters with an elaborate façade. (Hendler/TYG)

In Hua Hin, we worked with students from the Patravadi High School, a Thai school with an alternative education program that emphasizes the performing and other creative arts by incorporating them into subjects like math, science, and history.  The school and its surrounding arts complex were started by Patravadi Mejudhon, a Thai actress with a powerful agenda to foster artistic life in Thailand.  Her objectives are working; one of the students even asked us how he could start an a cappella group with his friends.

(As a funny side note: One of the teachers at Patravadi asked us how we protect our voices.  Daniel Spector answered, “Well, we get a lot of sleep, don’t drink or smoke, and always warm up before we sing.”  At the reception after our concert that night, one of the kids seemed confused by the fact that we were all drinking beers.)

So did the exchange work? I would certainly say so. I think we inspired Thai students and taught them a great deal about how small group a cappella singing works in the US, while they showed us the wide scope of Thai musical expression. Many of them even attended several of our concerts.  One of the foreign service officers we were working with told me how grateful he was that we could serve as such a positive face for America in Thailand.

In fact, the process of performing this thing called cultural diplomacy made consider joining the foreign service.  Being able to spend my life traveling the world and facilitating cultural exchange sounds like a pretty amazing job, and every moment we were working with the US Embassy in Bangkok, I saw myself in their shoes — and really liked it.  I guess I’ll have to add the foreign service exam to my plate of things to study for next year… Wish me luck!