BRUSSELS, Belgium - Joshua "Josh" Alo has been the Army's postmaster at U.S. Army Garrison Brussels for the past 10 months.
Alo knows the postal business well, particularly as it affects a military community. Prior to becoming Brussels postmaster, the Honolulu native served nine years in the Air Force as a mail transportation manager, with overseas assignments in Japan, Belgium and Italy, with significant deployments to the Middle East.
"I saw, firsthand, how important mail still is to people, especially to a military community overseas," he said. "I've seen, with my own eyes, the delight military folks take in receiving mail. I've seen a Soldier downrange literally spend minutes sniffing a special letter before opening it."
Deriving so much satisfaction from being an agent by which Servicemembers received their mail, taking a civilian job as a military postmaster was a natural step for Alo after his last Air Force enlistment was up.
As the Brussels postmaster, Alo supervises six employees who directly bring the U.S. mail to much of the community, as well as indirectly support the mail service of the three U.S. diplomatic missions in the city.
"You can talk all you want about e-mail making snail mail obsolete, but, judging by our workload, it's not going to happen anytime soon. However you cut it," he further noted, "there's a definite correlation between mail and morale. All of our great Brussels APO team knows they're directly contributing to this community's morale. It's a joy to serve and have this effect."
Delivering the mail is how Alo has earned his daily bread throughout his adult life, but his avocation since his teen years has been making music, specifically Reggae music. He enjoyed his active duty time with the Air Force, and with two enlistments, had even contemplated making it a career. His decision to leave active duty was driven, in part, by a desire to devote more time to exploring life through performing music.
How Alo became a recorded musician, with fans literally throughout the world, is a story of perseverance and dedication. "Music is a part of growing up Hawaiian," he explained.
Alo credits his father with instilling in him a love of Hawaiian music. Interestingly, Alo junior was a latecomer to performing as an instrumentalist. His first experience with a stringed instrument was with that quintessential Hawaiian piece, the ukulele, between the ages of 13-16.
"Taking ukulele was a mandatory part of the school curriculum," he said. "I hated it, probably because it was mandatory, but I learned basic fingering." By this point, Alo's personal musical tastes had crystallized around island Reggae, and learning to play the guitar would be fundamental to performing that genre.
"My father had an acoustic guitar in the closet, which I was strictly forbidden to touch. Well, I used to regularly sneak it out, and I taught myself to play. One day, when I was 17, I was playing and my father walked in on me."
Alo decided, on the spur of the moment, to not stop, and to finish playing the piece on the forbidden guitar. "Dad looked at me, listened, didn't say a word, and, next thing I knew, he gave me that guitar."
No longer having to be furtive about practicing, Alo continued his musical self-education by "jamming," typically on the beach, and more and more to impromptu audiences. "That's when I learned how much music can unite," he recalled. "A wide range of people would come to watch me perform."
Incidentally, to this day, Alo remains completely self-taught on the guitar; he cannot read music, but believes his musical ear has made up for that deficiency.
As much as he enjoyed performing, neither "jamming" nor a job at a local convenience store was paying the bills, hence his 1999 enlistment in the Air Force. Alo continued to hone his skills, playing largely to himself or occasional by-request solo performances for friends.
"Island Reggae is my music of choice," he said, "but it's frankly not something with a huge following at a typical military installation." In addition to playing his chosen instrument, he began to pay more and more attention to lyrics and tried his hand at writing his own.
During this period, he also underwent a personal religious experience, which provided an incentive to pay even more attention to lyric-writing. "My goal is to bless others with my music, and, for that, the lyrics really are everything," he explained.
Alo's big break came during his 2006-2007 assignment to Aviano Air Base in Italy. Invited to join a word, sound and poetry group that met weekly off-base, he became a regular.
"It felt good to be heard," he remembered. More than that, however, it gave him an introduction to an Italian who not only liked his music, but who also owned an independent recording studio in Venice.
The studio owner recruited several other musicians from among the Italian Reggae scene, and they came together to record Alo's first album, "Answer your Calling," released in 2007. Despite the fact that production was hurried ("I deployed to the Middle East for four months within a few days of its being recorded"), the album turned out to be a critical success within Reggae circles. The album made #2 on the Reggae trade charts in Brazil in 2007, whetting Alo's appetite to do more with his music. He credits the distribution revolution which the Internet has wrought with helping to disseminate his music.
The stability of being in Brussels has given him greater opportunity to pursue music in his off-time. He has formed a new band, and, together, they're focusing on a second album.
He wants to continue sharing his music with whoever will listen. Reggae has something of an anti-establishment stigma. He believes his music is completely true to Reggae - and is also music which can resonate with all.
"I'm proud of my service, past and present, to military communities, and that's a big part of what I sing about." Alo wants to be heard globally, not as a high-priced performer, but as a performer whose message people will want to hear. For the moment, that means continuing to work hard at his day job as Brussels postmaster, and continue, off-duty, to make a name for himself in local music circles and with independent recording studios.
"My wife and I are blessed," he said. "We live modestly, and material life is not something high on our priority list, and I do hope I can make a difference with my music."