DAKAR, Senegal - The U.S. Army Europe and Africa Band and Chorus might have been invited to Dakar, Senegal, to play for the U.S. Embassy’s National Day celebration, but that wasn’t the only music they made.
Arranged by Embassy staff, members of the band split up into two small ensembles for a couple of days of outreach events which included playing at two orphanages, three cultural centers, the International School of Dakar, and even a softball tournament.
Despite playing essentially the same set lists at each location, the experiences for the band members were worlds apart.
Staff Sgt. Tim Racki, saxophone player and leader of the Rhine River Ramblers, said his team was mostly met with curiosity when they arrived at The Village Pilote du Lac Rose, an orphanage near Dakar.
The group was flanked by children almost as soon as they stepped foot out of their van, as their hosts helped unload their gear. During a short tour of the orphanage, the Ramblers learned the children are taught electrical, wood and brick work, as well as sewing after they’ve finished their schooling for the day. The students spend three weeks in each area and pick the one they prefer. Once they’ve mastered the skill enough to be marketable, their teachers help them find a job.
Racki said that understanding a little bit about the students’ lives helped them connect during the performance - a connection that was made stronger as they shared lunch with the children.
“We all sat around these big bowls of chicken, rice and vegetables, each with a spoon,” he said.
“I’ve thought about this a few times this week - if we were tourists here, we never would’ve experienced what we have,” Racki said. “When it comes to meaning and impact, I believe, it will be lifelong for them, and it sure means a lot more to us.”
Playing for the Embassy’s National Day was familiar to U.S. Army Europe and Africa Band and Chorus Executive Officer 1st Lt. Jac’kel Smalls, but the outreach missions also left an unforgettable impression on him.
“Supporting the Embassy’s events is what we normally do,” he said. “But the outreach we did was something I’ve never experienced.”
Smalls, whose ancestral roots trace back to this very region of West Africa, said this entire mission was transcendent for him personally and professionally.
“We learned that for many in our audiences, it was the first time they’ve seen a U.S. Soldier in uniform,” Smalls said. “So, to be here with the Senegalese to add that human dimension was special.”
That was certainly the case for the Alliance Brass’ performance at the Cultural Center in Yeumbal, Senegal. In a set that included everything from American marches and hymns to songs from the ‘70s, to well-known tunes from animated movies and Latin pop music, the community reception was a bit overwhelming for Staff Sgt. Robert Chambers, a trumpet player and leader of the Alliance Brass ensemble.
“It’s so special to feel that connection with our audience,” Chambers said. “It’s true what they say, music is a universal language. The children may not have understood everything I said, but they danced anyway.”
Racki echoed that for his group’s afternoon performance at the Rufisque Cultural Center saying that the 45-minute concert essentially turned into a dance party.
It makes sense - Senegal is renowned worldwide for its musical traditions and artistic heritage.
The majority of the Yeumbal audience participate in an after-school program led by Amath Sarr, a community cultural manager. The program offers training in a variety of cultural subjects, such as music, music production, cultural policy and administration, even teaching students how to deejay, sing and rap. Having the band visit, Sarr said, helps tie together the training his program provides.
“It’s a great honor to welcome you,” Sarr said. “When our youth see you, and hear your music and stories, it gives them hope that they can use what we’re teaching them for a bigger purpose.”
Djibril Thaim, chairman of the English Club in Yeumbal, hopes the experience shared between his community and the U.S. Army Europe and Africa Band and Chorus is only the beginning of something amazing - after all, the United States and Senegal have enjoyed more than 60 years of strong cooperation and partnership.
“All of our doors are wide open for you,” he said. “Anytime you want to come back, call us and we will arrange your visit.”
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