- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2011

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Carrots haven’t worked with Pakistan. Neither have sticks. Now the U.S. has enlisted the power of jazz music to improve relations with Pakistanis at a time when the important alliance has hit rock bottom.

The Ari Roland Jazz Quartet certainly faced a daunting task. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars over the past 10 years to win Pakistan’s support in fighting al Qaeda and Taliban militants and turn around rampant anti-American sentiment in the country. Now, Congress is threatening to cut off funding given the lack of results.

The performances are part of a recent stepped-up effort by the U.S. Embassy to sponsor cultural events in Pakistan. Already this year, an American director has staged Neil Simon’s play “The Odd Couple.” The embassy also plans to bring over a country rock band and a hip-hop group as well as American documentary filmmakers who will lead workshops for Pakistanis.

The jazz quartet from New York City arrived in Pakistan about two weeks ago for a series of concerts and music classes with local musicians. The trip culminated with a live recording of a “friendship song” with a Pakistani rock band during a concert Tuesday night.

But relations between the two countries have been anything but friendly during their trip.

Only two days before the musicians got here, militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles at the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Afghanistan, killing seven Afghans in an attack that the top U.S. military officer said was carried out by fighters supported by Pakistan’s main spy agency.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also blamed the Inter-Services Intelligence agency for helping militants from the Pakistan-based Haqqani network who carried out a recent truck bombing in Afghanistan that wounded 77 American soldiers.

Pakistan’s leaders have lashed out in response, warning the U.S. that the allegations in Washington could destroy the alliance between the two countries. The accusations have also sparked a fresh wave of anti-American anger in the local media and among ordinary Pakistanis.

Talk about a tough audience for a music group.

But Ari Roland, an energetic double bass player, and his band members, two saxophonists and a drummer, didn’t show any hesitation when they took the stage in front of several hundred people seated in a small outdoor auditorium in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

Mostly dressed in suits and ties, the band played several jazz standards, such as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” They also invited onstage a Pakistani musician who played tabla, traditional percussion instruments that look like bongo drums.

The crowd cheered as the tabla player accompanied them on several Pakistani songs, his fingers flying up and down like pistons over the drums. The energy hit its peak as the crowd sang along to “Jazba-e-Junoon,” or “Spirit of Passion,” a patriotic song by the Pakistani rock band Junoon.

There was plenty of bilateral good cheer, but the group’s performances, which also took place in the cities of Karachi and Lahore, will likely do little to win over Pakistanis. The crowds have been small and largely made up of elite Pakistanis who are more likely to have positive attitudes toward the U.S.

Across the country, only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the U.S., and 69 percent see the country as an enemy, according to a poll this year by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Attitudes haven’t improved even though the U.S. has given Pakistan roughly $20 billion in military aid over the past 10 years and has pledged $7.5 billion in economic aid to help build things like schools, hospitals and power plants.

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