Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Horn Of Africa



(Photos by Staff Sgt. Renae Saylock USAF)

You can tell a lot about a human spirit by the sound and tone that comes out of their instrument.  Some players are more lyrical and sweet, some more aggressive and edgy.  Tone, when it is truly unique and personal, is somewhat like a fingerprint, in that no two players sound exactly the same.

I encouraged the students at the Arts Center in Djibouti to bring their instruments to the master class.  Two students complied.

Although we certainly involved everyone with clapping, call and response, and vocal improvisations, these two students joined us instrumentally in our musical jam sessions.

The first was a guitar player and vocalist who shared a traditional local song with the class.  He had 5 strings on his electric guitar, but played them with the joy of all 6.  He led us in his own unique version of Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road, Jack,” which seems to be a favorite throughout the region, and Joe provided him with a full set of new strings for his guitar, a difficult thing to find in town.  This city has a high level of poverty and the equipment that is available to the local musicians is largely provided by US soldiers at Camp Lemonnier, a US Navy installation nearby.  Many of these soldiers are going above and beyond the call of duty to create opportunities for musical and arts educational programs to the local students.

The master class continued and one student was overcome with rhythm and began joyfully dancing to the beat.  I learned a few new moves!

Then something unexpected happened.  One of the only female students in the class, a woman in beautiful pale green clothing and scarves pulled out a tenor saxophone.  Her conservative dress were a stark contrast to the large horn she held in her hand.  I asked her to join us and she said she only played alone.  I said that would be fine, but she changed her mind.  After a bit of gentle coaxing, she finally agreed to come to the front and play.
She approached shyly and raised the mouthpiece to her lips, looking around somewhat nervously.  It’s very possible that she had never played in public before this moment.
She took a breath and blew into the horn.  A squeak...then a squawk.  Frustration crossed her face.
“It’s fine,” I assured her.  “There are no wrong notes.  Play what you feel.”
She redoubled her efforts, moistening the reed a bit more, looking around the room tentatively.  Then something clicked.  I saw something change in her eyes.

She took a deeper, more courageous breath, and then...
Out came a sound that was broad and clear.  She played a minute or two solo and her confidence grew with every passing note.  She soon seemed to forget her surroundings completely and tap into the source.

The band joined in with her and she played with a robust tone akin to a young John Coltrane.  I could hardly believe it, and I was loving every moment.
At one point she left the melody far behind and played with complete freedom, a musical self-expression of spirit that refused to be pinned down by any form or key signature.  True. Free. Jazz.

Finally, she opened her eyes, took the horn out of her mouth and I could see she was finished playing.  She shyly nodded to us and the entire room broke into applause. 
She quietly sat and put her horn away.

I have tremendous respect for her courage.  I wish her many more opportunities to play out with passion and with others in a public forum. 

Something special happened in that room,
Something I have yet to fully understand,
Something I am honored to have been a part of...

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