Ambassador for South American music : Irma Goebel Labastille

Irma Goebel Labastille often dressed in authentic costume when performing South American songs

The Good Neighbor Policy was a U.S. policy initiative enacted by FDR in the early 1930s. Up until this point, a large part of the interaction between North and South America was military. This high-tension scenario was far from ideal, expensive, and not conducive to successful relations. Soon a new way of looking at diplomacy evolved, one that put forth the idea that cultural exchange, trade, and creative effort was the best way to foster true understanding and sustainable relationships between the two continents. It ushered in a new era formed on the belief that conflict resolution and joint problem solving would be more productive if each party understood each other on a cultural level.

Enter Irma Goebel Labastille. Many things happened in her life to make her one of the most ideal ambassadors of South American culture and music from the late 1920s on. She graduated college at the age of fifteen, then continued studying piano and music theory in Berlin. She toured Europe, performing, until she came back to the U.S. to teach college music. She married the heir to a prominent French family living in the West Indies, Ferdinand Labastille, in 1926. His work representing the company GM in South America required him to travel extensively. Irma was not content to stay at home, and instead, accompanied him over sixteen years and through twenty countries.  She approached this journey with an already rich understanding of music and journalism, writing columns about the places she visited that were regularly published in big U.S. and South American newspapers. All these things converged to make Irma Goebel Labastille a prominent advocate and spokeswoman for Latin American music and culture when North America turned its attention to the Arts in foreign countries to foster positive relationships in the first half of the 20th century and beyond.

Throughout her travels, she made it a point to go into the most remote and out of the way places she could find, always in search of new musical traditions. In the 20s and 30s, this meant that someone needed to bring the music back, which Labastille did, with as little embellishment or change from the original as possible. Even now, some tunes she heard in South American villages have not been able to be transcribed into written music due to their complexity. Labastille’s recordings, performances, concerts and lectures brought her acclaim and praise from both South American dignitaries and diplomats and U.S. audiences and scholars. Her unique contributions as the U.S. national focus on South America shifted to the arts, earned her the title of Official Consultant on Latin American music and Allied Arts, part of the U.S. Dept. of State’s Office of Inter-American Affairs (later absorbed into the State Department). She appeared on radio shows on NBC and CBS, recorded with RCA, and even became a member of the Society of Women Geographers after keeping detailed notes and research files on her journey. These files are included in the Irma Goebel Labastille Collection at Special Collections, along with original photographs, writing, articles, press clippings, and performance posters and programs.