Carla D. Canales: “The best Cultural Diplomacy arises spontaneously, and Rosalía is a great example of this”

Photography: Flaminia Fanale

By Marc Amat

Carla Dirlikov Canales has delighted audiences across five continents with her voice. She is one of the most internationally renowned mezzo-sopranos, having performed, one of the most times, the role of Carmen the protagonist of the famous opera of the same name by Bizet,. She has played the role more than 80 times, in 12 countries. Daughter of a Mexican mother and Bulgarian father, she grew up in the United States, where she trained at the University of Michigan. She continued her studies at the Paris Conservatory and finally landed at McGill University and the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Her voice, however, has not only been praised for its dramatic force and musicality in the lyrical field. For years, Canales has also seen it as a powerful tool for moving towards a fairer, more equal, inclusive and integrated society.

Since 2005, she has served as U.S. State Department Arts Envoy and has been an expert in Cultural Diplomacy, a discipline that seeks to encourage the exchange of ideas between cultures to promote mutual understanding. As Arts Envoy, she has worked in countries such as Honduras, Peru, Montenegro, Kazakhstan and Indonesia. She is currently leading the seminar series The Future of Cultural Diplomacy at Harvard University, with more than 2,000 people registered. She is also the founder of The Canales Project, a non-profit organization that runs courses around the world to promote cultural diplomacy through music.

At first glance the concept Cultural Diplomacy may seem thorny. How do you define it?

It really isn’t as complicated as it seems. To explain it, I like to unravel the two words that make it up. Let’s start with Culture. Sometimes, when we talk about culture, we think directly about high culture: operas, ballets, museums… But, for me, culture is a concept, which goes far beyond bringing together artistic disciplines. In fact, it is closely linked to social issues, such as identity, beliefs, traditions… On the other hand, Diplomacy is the art of maintaining peaceful relationships, whether between nations, groups or individuals. It’s based on exchange. If we put all this together, we can define Cultural Diplomacy as the discipline that allows us to exchange ideas and beliefs to create mutual trust between people, groups or countries. It is very important, for example, to help break down stereotypes and promote coexistence between people with different identities.

Therefore, Cultural Diplomacy and identity are two worlds that overlap. 

Yes. Identity is a very important concept in Cultural Diplomacy action. Today, we live in a world where many people emigrate to other countries, either to grow professionally or through obligation, due to conflict or war. When they do this, they must adapt to the culture of their new country. This means that they have to decide which traits to adopt and which parts of the culture of their country of origin to leave behind. I had to do this in the United States. Though I was born there, my mother is from Mexico and my father from Bulgaria. As a child, my upbringing was greatly influenced by Mexican culture -Spanish was my first language, I am Catholic…- and by Bulgarian culture, which led to my passion for opera and classical music. When my music career took off, I was traveling for 300 days every year. This made me immerse myself in the culture and identity of each country I stepped foot in. I feel like a citizen of the world. I have developed a great curiosity for learning about other cultures and finding out how they could be improved. We should get used to focusing more on the traits that bring us together, rather than those that set us apart. 

There is a lot of talk about the huge influence the United States has around the world in artistic disciplines such as cinema, music, gastronomy… Is it the result of having practiced intense Cultural Diplomacy?

Good Cultural Diplomacy is based on the exchange and mutual enrichment of the two cultures. I’m highly critical of the United States’ approach to the richness of diverse identities within its borders. Canada, for example, sees each emigrant as a small piece of a large mosaic. Together, with the individuality of each piece, they build the country. In the United States, on the other hand, all the pieces are put together in a large melting pot and blended up to make a single culture. In general, it’s a country with little international curiosity. Most Americans only speak one language. That closes many doors for them. However, they are aware that their culture alone generates a very strong power of attraction and that other cultures want to adopt it. Throughout history, this fact has helped a lot to cultivate alliances with other countries.

Jazz is often cited as one of the elements that has contributed most.

Jazz is surely one of the few things that can be considered to have been born here, even if it has strong components from a mixture of cultures. During the Cold War it was of great importance when it came to boosting American foreign policy and bringing the country closer to other cultures. Facing a Soviet Bloc marked by a conservative and traditional culture –lead by symphony orchestras and classical composers-, it was presented as a new and groundbreaking style of music. Indeed, it showed the United States to the world as an innovative country. This is a good example of the way America used Cultural Diplomacy. Nowadays, we continue to see this innovative character with the creations that come out of Silicon Valley, we have also seen it with modern dance; visual artists such as Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol; or pop music. People like this a lot and this natural attraction to a culture is called soft power. The United States has a lot of this.

Conversely, is it difficult for American society to integrate elements from other cultures?

Traditionally yes, but this is slowly changing. In fact, the United States is going through a very important identity crisis. There are studies that suggest that, in 2043, for example, populations considered today as minority in the United States, will become majority. The Latin American and Asian communities are the fastest growing. Here is an example that highlights that arousing Americans’ interest in features characteristic of other identities and cultures is possible: Rosalía. She studied flamenco, learned a lot from it and, after becoming an expert, tore it up to create her own very innovative style. Picasso did the same. Her talent has captivated the United States and, naturally, has made many people interested in flamenco. Without giving up singing in Spanish and Catalan, and without renouncing her Flamenco roots, she has collaborated with singers and groups of other genres and identities, such as The Weeknd. Through her music, she has shown the world pride for her land, culture and identity. This is one of the best examples of Cultural Diplomacy that exists today.

She probably doesn’t even realize it. 

Perhaps. But the best Cultural Diplomacy arises spontaneously, without being driven by governments or institutions. After all, it’s a natural thing. You and I, doing this interview, are – in a way – promoting Cultural Diplomacy. A Child who goes to Texas to study for a year will do so, too. Their American classmates will remember them all their lives and, as grown-ups, they will explain that they had a classmate who taught them customs and traditions of another country. All educational programs are a very good example of Cultural Diplomacy. In addition, it is one of the most effective, because it is done from person to person, face to face. On the other hand, there are organizations such as the Institute of American Studies that, through their programs, also practice Cultural Diplomacy. They do so when, for example, they organize a series of jazz concerts or when offering language courses. One of the problems that Cultural Diplomacy has is the way its success is measured. There are no mechanisms to ensure that it has been a success. But there is one element that helps: persistence. Cultural Diplomacy requires patience. It must be cooked over a low heat and the relationship must be cultivated over time. 

You’ve found a way to promote Cultural Diplomacy through singing. In fact, you founded The Canales Project.

Yes. There were few platforms that promoted Cultural Diplomacy by focusing on music. Music is one of the best vehicles for carrying it out. To me, it’s not a universal language. There are very different genres and styles, and everyone understands these in their own way. But it is the gateway to the world of emotions. And emotions are universal. Music allows you to enter a different environment, where identity, skin color, religion and language don’t matter. Where all cultures can be found. We’re all equal. That’s why promoting the exchange between identities through music can be so effective. 

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