Arts, Culture & Media

Geo answer

Directions: Head south from Brazil and cross Bolivia. That should land you in Paraguay. Paraguay's one of two landlocked countries in South America. In case you're wondering the other one is Bolivia. But were zeroing in on Paraguay...its in the heart of South America -- sometimes called the Coraz�n de America.

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We're looking for the name of the country's largest city, a city of 1.8 million inhabitants. The US Embassy is located there, not far from the banks of the Paraguay River.

There's an unusual diplomatic initiative underway there we want to tell you about. There's no further diplomacy or tricky negotiations involved, just name Paraguay's capital if you can.

Following our Geo Quiz directions should have landed you in Paraguay's capital: Asunci�n.

ParaquayParaquay

If you flip thru the racks of cds in music shops in Asunci�n, you'll likely come across some folk songs sung in Guarani. That's an indigenous language spoken by 7 million South Americans and one of Paraguay's official languages alongside Spanish.

Campo JuradoCampo Jurado

But Guarani is not the language you'd expect the US Ambassador to Paraguay to be speaking, never mind singing.

US Ambassador James CasonUS Ambassador James Cason

US Ambassador James Cason singing some of his favorite Paraguayan folk songs in Guarani.

The new album which is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, proceeds from cd sales will help fund English-language grants for poor Paraguayan students, and second, have you ever heard of a singing ambassador?

"Never sang in my life before February, never wrote a song before February , never was on a stage before February!"

So February we can assume marked a turning point in Ambassador Cason's career. He'd been studying Guarani for about 3 1/2 years when the idea of singing popped up unexpectedly:

"The lead opera singer (soprano Rebecca Arramendi) in Paraguay's Una Norte is a friend of mine, (Orchestra of the Universidad del Norte) her piano professor was teaching me Guarani and told her I could sing and she invited me to go to a music festival on a Monday and the festival was on a Thursday and I said "Me sing? How many people ?" She said "Oh about ten thousand." and I said, "Oh my goodness. You think I can do it?" She said, "Sure, let's go!" So I said, "Alright, let's do it! Why not?"

At the festival, Cason wore a traditional poncho, and sang his heart out.

The reaction was overwhelming he says. It was first time those in the crowd had ever heard a foreigner singing Guarani folk songs.

As for the reaction back in Washington to all this attention on a singing ambassador, it might easily have been looked upon as a distraction from more important diplomatic missions like negotiating trade agreements, or meeting with local officials. But Cason says his bosses back at the State Department approved:

"They thought it was great because what I've been trying to do is show respect for Paraguay for its culture and the polls show that Paraguayans thought that we didn't respect their culture and I said well that's not true and so that's why before I even came to the country I learned Guarani and I've been studying it since them because it's a way to show respect and it's a way to communicate with people and I think they were just amazed and delighted to learn a language that's probably harder than Chinese."

Guarani is so hard to learn it can come in handy. Paraguayan soccer players are said to speak Guaran� during games to confuse their European opponents. Diplomats might take a lesson. Cason says he believes diplomats anywhere in the world should learn the local language, and not rely on interpreters.

Ambassador Cason's diplomatic posting in Asuncion comes to an end in August. But his songs will stay on, including this one called Campo Jurando or The Field of Promises:

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