Playing music with Iraqi students
Sgt. Michell Spinazzola, 1st Infantry Division Band, practices a musical piece with students from the Peace Through Art Academy in Basra, Iraq, Dec. 16, 2010.

BASRA, Iraq -- Eight students from the Peace Through Art Academy boarded a train in Baghdad and headed to Basra, Iraq, to attend three days of master music classes and performances by the 1st Infantry Division Band in mid-December.

It was a little challenging to communicate between the American Soldiers and the Iraqi youths at first, but once the music began a universal language was born out through their harmonizing.

The idea for the class began in September when the band traveled to Baghdad to perform. Having spent only a few hours working with the children, the Soldiers wanted to do more for the aspiring young musicians before redeploying back to Fort Riley, Kan., and organized a follow-up session with them.

After months of coordination and with some funding assistance from the Basra Provincial Reconstruction Team, the three-day master class became a reality.

Ali Khassaf, the conductor for the Peace Through Art Academy, said it was an opportunity for the children to learn from highly skilled musicians.

"This is a good way to expose the children to some masters in music, such as the American soldiers," Ali said. "It is a unique opportunity to help us advance in classical music."

"It's also a chance for the world to see the level Iraqi music has achieved so far," said Ali.

The opening guest performer immediately caught the children's attention as he blended modern electronic music equipment with cultural instruments such as the cajon, bodhran, melodica and a unique style of vocally performed percussion syllables called konnakol.

Then the beat picked up and the children who appeared reserved started to move with the melody played by the Cantigny Brass Quintet.

"It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing," said Chief Warrant Officer Jeremiah Keillor, the band commander, as he announced the next piece by jazz legend Duke Ellington.

"Music is about having fun," Keillor said. "It should be an enjoyable experience."

Through music, the Iraqi children can be linked to other cultures as they learn songs from different parts of the world.

"When we listen to music from other cultures, it gives us a sense of world identity, the ability to bridge different cultures," said Keillor. "I think music gives us a sense of connection to our ancestors, our heritage, [and] our culture."

"I view music as the common language between the entire globe," Ali said. "Music unifies the whole world, regardless of the culture."

"I think when you have art and music, it gives you an outlet to express yourself through something peaceful," said trumpet player Staff Sgt. Andrew Spinazolla.

Both Keillor and Ali have similar hopes of establishing working relationships between soldiers and Iraqi music communities, allowing those interactions to help erase some of the negative perceptions that have emerged between the two peoples after years of conflict.

"There might be a stereotype that Iraq harbors violence," Ali said. "This is a good way to teach the world Iraqis want peace, to advance in culture, advance in life."

Changing the world's perception of Iraqis may be a tall order to fill, but so was changing the Iraqis' view of Americans.

"We are Soldiers. They may have also seen other Soldiers out there doing things a little more intense," Keillor reflected. "Hopefully they can take this experience here, and tell others that Americans are not that different from them. We both play music, we both laugh about the same things."

He said that he hoped they had helped to dispel some misconceptions about what an American is.

The 1st Infantry Division Band plans to extend the program in the United States by involving the local communities in hopes to collect music materials and instruments for the Iraqi children.

Keillor said the opportunity to teach young musicians helps to bring him back to that passion.

"It would be very easy for us to play just for the troops," said Keillor. "But there is something about sharing your music with the next generation, when we can get back to that music root and be able to give music to someone, it's a very rewarding experience."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16