Soldiers break through Arabic, English barrier with music
August 1, 2011
BASRA, Iraq (Army News Service, Aug. 1, 2011) -- Soldiers deployed to Iraq often find difficulty in communicating with local nationals without the use of an interpreter. Even so, there are other communication tools that are easily understood worldwide, such as body language, hand gestures and music.
One group of Texas National Guardsmen with the 36th Infantry Division deployed to Contingency Operating Base Basra, Iraq, since December, learned how to break down the language barrier by speaking in the universal language of music.
"We're having classes for faculty and students from the University of Basrah from the fine arts department there," said Chief Warrant Officer Two Jeff Lightsey, 36th Inf. Div. band commander. "We've had classes our entire deployment here. It's basically music classes, music enrichment classes, on Western music. They performed for us on their native instruments. But they are seeking information, background and education on Western music and Western history."
Lightsey, and the two Soldiers who have been teaching these classes since they arrived, serve their country in more ways than one. Back home, both teach music at the high school level. Lightsey said it's been almost impossible to compare the University of Basrah students to his students in Texas.
"It's a very different background and of course, they're used to some different sounds," said Lightsey. "And they use some different instruments as well. They're string oriented. They don't have any brass instruments and very little percussion except for their native percussion. Their skill level is actually very low just because they haven't had the training."
Although the language barrier is apparent during each class, Lightsey said the students and the instructors have accomplished a lot.
"The music is the same. We say that music is an international language, and I think that this has been a real education and a confirmation of that," he said.
Staff Sgt. Maurice E. Kelly, 36th Inf. Div. band member, also knows the frustrations of communication when it comes to teaching the Iraqi students. During one session, Kelley taught a lesson on string instruments with no interpreter and no instruments for the students.
Regardless of the lack of oral communication or equipment, Kelley said this instance still stands out as one of the best classes he's taught while deployed here.
"We had some words that we all knew," Kelley said, "so we were able to talk about some of the things that were specific to playing those instruments. But everybody was laughing and having a good time."
Communication hasn't been the only thing standing between these students and learning. The small budget for the university's music program has also made it difficult. Having seen this first hand during a visit to the university, Kelley, a public school teacher in Kansas City, Kan., said it has changed his mind set about his job as a teacher when he returns to the U.S.
"I mean, they've got standing water in the hallway," said Kelley. "And, their annual budget for the department includes office supplies and anything like that; from what they're telling me is less than what I make as a teacher in a month. Being able to work with what I have will certainly be much easier for me to do and not even think about."
Sgt. Charles R. Fricker, 36th Inf. Div. band percussion section leader said he also has learned a new appreciation for his teaching job back home.
"You know, being here in Iraq, seeing a different culture that is very much struggling after many years of war, you realize that we take so many things for granted, especially in the public education sector in the United States. I'm just thankful for every resource that I have," he said.
"For the Iraqis, the big take away is music is a universal language," Fricker said. "So that's a really cool take away. No matter where you go in the world, music is like a constant."