Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Just Words

Joe - Djibouti (I’m in Bahrain now but thinking back) – We got off the plane in Djibouti and had to get visas attached to our passports to enter the country. We were sent to an office to meet with the customs officer who interviews foreigners for entry visas.

Johnny showed the officer our tour book which describes the details of our visit to each country - where we stay, embassy contacts, concerts, master classes etc. The conversation, in English, got bogged down. The officer acted a bit confused and annoyed. The situation was getting a little tense. There seemed to be confusion over our purpose in Djibouti. Were we in Djibouti to play at the American embassy or on behalf of the American embassy? French is one of the official languages of Djibouti so I decided to jump into the conversation to see if my fairly decent French accent, bad grammar and horrible vocabulary would help. Et voila! The customs official’s attitude completely changed. In a minute or so he was laughing. I told him how I learned French (I leave that story for another place and time – it’s complicated).

I thought about this experience over the next few days. What happened? I believe that this was an experience that can be easily misinterpreted. Before having spoken French to him it was easy for me to think, “Okay, this guy’s giving us a hard time because we’re Americans. Foreigners hate Americans”. I hear that a lot in the States these days. But, what I really believe now is that he was as uncomfortable speaking English as I am speaking French. When I spoke French, even bad French, the world shrunk. His English was probably better than my French but I could tell that he appreciated the effort on my part. I think he was actually happy to meet a bunch of smiling American musicians making silly jokes in his office.

As a side note I should say that it’s not uncommon to meet Djiboutiens who speak at least four languages fluently. Arabic and French are official languages in Djibouti while many people are also fluent in Somali and Afar. English is also widely spoken with varying degrees of proficiency. It’s humbling for me, an American who speaks one language and struggles by in a second language, to meet a Djiboutien kid who can switch in and out of four languages depending on the conversation.

Language is interesting in the sense that it can separate us as people or bring us together. Words can be tricky – to play at a place (an embassy) or on behalf of an entity (an embassy) is a subtle distinction if you are not speaking your own language. In fact, I’m getting a head ache thinking about this. I’ll leave this to linguists.

In the end, I believe that we would have gotten our visas a lot faster if we had just played “Hit the Road Jack” for the customs officer. But then again, I wouldn’t have gotten the free French lesson.

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...