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State Dept. secretly brought Iranian musicians to tour America last year.

In one of the State Department's operations to build cultural links between Iranians and Americans, it clandestinely brought 14 Iranian folk musicians and four interpreters for a musical tour of the United States last year.

The visit was kept a secret--until now. Last week, Gabrielle Gray, the executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, told all.

She told the Messenger-Inquirer, the daily newspaper in Owensboro, that she and her staff were sworn to secrecy before the delegation arrived and no cameras were allowed by the State Department.

"Because we don't have diplomatic relations with Iran, they requested that we keep it quiet," Gray said. "We got permission to invite a bluegrass band to play for them. Kings Highway [an Owensboro-based band] agreed to come. They had to agree not to talk about it either."

When Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state, the State Department started trying to promote cultural and academic links with Iranians, inviting artists and doctors to events and conferences in the United States. After the first few visits, there were no further public announcements.

But as Gray explained, they continued clandestinely. It isn't known if the first groups of visitors got into trouble when they returned home, but that would be a logical explanation for a shift to secret visits. While Iranians are permitted to visit the United States, the idea that they would visit under State Department auspices likely bothered officialdom in Tehran.

The visit by the 14 musicians was in May 2009, just several weeks after the Obama Ad ministration took office. It isn't known if the Obama Administration is continuing such clandestine visits.

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Gray said the Iranian musicians "heard Kings Highway warming up, and there was no holding them back. They had to go investigate. They were so excited."

Several of the Iranians brought their instruments on the trip and went to get them, she said.

"A very lovely woman, fully veiled, play a daf [a Persian drum] that was thrown in the air and shaken like a tambourine," Gray told the local newspaper

Some of the gentlemen started doing a Russian dance [the trepak, which involves kicking from a squatting position] and morphed into a do-si-do," she said. "The staff was doing it with them. Then we showed them clogging."

During lunch, Gray said, "We had some meaningful conversations about friendship and making music together. Thirty or more people pledged to not let anything keep us apart."

Gray said that after lunch: "We had a huge jam session that lasted for hours. At the end, Kings Highway played 'Old Oaken Bucket.' The Iranian sitar player asked them to play it again. It was identical, note for note, he said, to a centuries-old Iranian folk song."

The music for "Old Oaken Bucket" was written by George Frederick Kiallmark, a 19th Century British composer. The words were written by Samuel Woodworth in 1818. The music and words were joined in 1870. Gray said the Iranian visitors reported their folk song was much older than that.

"They got on stage with Kings Highway and played it together," she said. "Everyone in the whole place was crying because it was so amazing. It was the best day I've ever had at the museum."

Gray was playing her grandfather's violin, which was made in 1838. She told the sitar player how old the violin was and asked how old his instrument was. She said he replied it was about 2,500 years old, probably referring to the origins of the sitar, not to the age of his particular sitar, as Gray thought.

"They have such an ancient culture," Gray said. "And ours is so young."

At the end of the visit, she said, "Everyone hugged everybody."

On the trip, the Iranian musicians visited Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Louisville as well as Owensboro, Gray told the Messenger-Inquirer.

"We got a letter from the State Department later saying that of all the places they went, they loved the bluegrass museum the most," she said. "It was their favorite place."

Museum staff members continue to correspond with the Iranian musicians, Gray said.
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Title Annotation:Culture: From then to now
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:Dec 31, 2010
Words:694
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