Tuesday, June 24, 2008

American diplomat becomes music star in Paraguay

Miami Herald

Posted on Tue, Jun. 24, 2008
American diplomat becomes music star in Paraguay
Becoming famous in this poor and isolated nation would not seem like a huge challenge. But even here, U.S. Ambassador James C. Cason seemed an unlikely candidate for national celebrity.

That was before he learned the obscure Paraguayan Guaraní language, recorded a music album of indigenous folk songs and sold 1,000 tickets to a concert in a downtown theater. Now, in the final year of his four-decade diplomatic career, Cason has suddenly become the toast of Paraguay, or at least the country's most unusual pop star.

''He's been on TV and in all the newspapers,'' said Nelson Viveros, 16, who traveled to meet the ambassador recently in Encarnación, by the Argentina border. ``It's strange, but people love it.''

Until January, it appeared Cason, 63, would go quietly into retirement in Miami, whose Cuban-American community he knows and where he was considering running for office or seeking a job related to Latin America.

Paraguay is the last foreign service posting for the New Jersey native, following assignments in Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Panama, Uruguay, Italy, Venezuela and Portugal. Before moving to the capital city of Asunción in 2005, he spent three years as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Cason made a name for himself in Cuba, too, earning a reputation as an aggressive critic of the Castro government. He organized workshops for dissidents, distributed short-wave radios across the island and once displayed a mock jail cell to bring attention to the plight of political prisoners.

Cason had little on his resume to suggest a career in show biz. He never sang professionally, played no instruments and understood no Guaraní, spoken by 96 percent of Paraguayans.

He did not begin studying Guaraní until his last month in Havana, hiring a Paraguayan medical student to tutor him for three hours a day. In Washington, awaiting Senate confirmation, the State Department located a replacement instructor, a Paraguayan who once taught Peace Corps volunteers.

Using a pair of out-of-print text books, Cason, already fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, arranged three months of private lessons.

''I've never been to a country where I couldn't speak the language,'' Cason told The Miami Herald. ``These words are very hard to retain. It's pure consonants. You've got to just bang them into your head.''

In low-key Paraguay, the new ambassador showed hints of showmanship on his first hour on the job.

Upon arriving in December 2005, he stepped off the plane wearing the traditional hand-embroidered Paraguayan ao poi dress shirt and greeted local reporters in Guaraní, delivering a three-page speech. Not even embassy staff knew he had studied the language.

In Asunción, he recruited his third tutor and began watching Guaraní TV and filling his iPod with vocabulary lessons that shared time with the Beatles, Buddy Holly and Whitney Houston on his playlist. He soon discovered Guaraní music, translating 1920s songs about emigrants longing for Paraguay and Paraguayan soldiers who march into battle afraid their girlfriends will stray in their absence.

Singing in Guaraní did not occur to Cason until a few months ago, when his wife Carmen, an admirer of the ambassador's Peter, Paul & Mary renditions around the house, recommended that he hire her piano teacher for voice lessons.

As Cason tells it, his hidden talent was soon discovered.


But even in little Asunción, it seems being ambassador helped in navigating the music scene. The piano teacher, for example, turned out to be Benito Román, the choral director for the UniNorte opera. After only a month of lessons, Román mentioned his new protégé to the country's most celebrated soprano, Rebecca Arramendi.

Before long a duet had been scheduled for a 10,000-seat amphitheater in Itá.On stage in a straw hat, Cason warned the audience that he was an amateur vocalist, before joining in four songs.

''I'd never sang in my life in front of anybody, in any language,'' Cason recalled. 'But when I sang the first line of the first song, they all started screaming and cheering. I said, `OK, I can do this.' ''

Not all reactions have been as positive.


In a review of the CD release show in the Ultima Hora newspaper, a critic noted that Cason ''sat on a stool with the lyrics in front of him'' during the entire performance, appearing ''nervous or unsure about the tune and pronunciation of Guaraní.'' The newspaper La Nación was more direct: The ambassador, it said, ``sang in the monotone of a tired bird.''

Following the show in Itá, Cason said, fan mail poured into the embassy -- as did invitations to festivals and for a (nonsinging) cameo as a cardinal in the opera Tosca. The songs he had performed in Itá went into heavy rotation on local radio stations.

A short time later, after a government tour of the Itaipú dam, Cason surprised the band at a local restaurant by leading a group of ambassadors in a sing-along. Then, at a rural festival and cattle auction, he gave another impromptu gig.

Though he does not leave his post until the fall, he is already planning his life in Miami, where he hopes to sell his album and perform with visiting Paraguayan musicians, possibly inviting local Cuban bands to jam.

Cason insists that he decided to record the album as a souvenir, a gift for his two sons and proof that he had once spoken Guaraní. Still, in April, he recruited a platoon of professional violinists, guitarists and accordion players, some urged out of retirement, to join him in the studio. He spent $2,500, logged 32 hours of recording sessions and even wrote a song, Campo Jurado, the album's opening track.

''Paraguayans cry when they hear it,'' Cason said.

To generate buzz for the CD release, Cason did the Paraguayan interview circuit, giving more than 15 interviews to magazines, newspapers, TV and radio shows. The Gran Teatro del Banco Central sold out; outside, tickets sold for 50 percent above face value.


Between the ticket and CD sales, Cason has raised more than $20,000 for scholarships for English language classes in Paraguay, according to Livia Melgarejo, spokeswoman for the Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano.

It is not as clear if he has succeeded in his other mission: improving the U.S. image here. Just two months ago, Paraguayans elected Fernando Lugo to be the country's first leftist president in more than six decades.

On a recent tour of Encarnación, however, it was clear that Cason himself has become a popular figure.

At one stop, the opening of a rural English language center, the ambassador's voice filled a lobby crowded with fans.

''He recorded a CD in our language. That was something,'' Juan Horacio Duré, secretary of health for the regional government, said after meeting the ambassador.

``I've never before met any U.S. representative who could speak Guaraní.''

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