Written by Ed Maitland Smith
Music has always brought people, and communities together. KiSS, through the charitable support that it offers, has been built on a sense of belonging. To add another layer to that belonging, to provide another means of bringing the community even closer together; an education in music seemed the perfect driving force to further strengthen the life-changing work that KiSS was already performing.
The inaugural KiCA Music Mission, a group of 15 JHN staff and former students, each with a background in music, travelled to Uganda this summer with the goal not only of teaching a number of young people to play our respective instruments, but to also donate a sizable quantity of musical equipment. It was to be left with the KiSS centres in both Hoima (a large town near to Lake Albert) and Kasambya (a rural village in western Uganda), but not before we had the chance to use it in three concerts across the three-week-long trip for the enjoyment of the communities.
The main desire, and anticipated outcome of the trip, was to teach music to a group of young people. Not just to teach them however, but to do so to a proficient enough level that they could continue to play and, in turn, teach younger generations, expanding on the already rich tradition of music in the communities in both Hoima and Kasambya. We also hoped that they would be able to form a band of their own, not only to carry on enjoying to play after we had left, but also to be able to generate income through performances and events.
Our own band from the UK (named ‘Ubanda’ during the trip) was comprised of a full rhythm section that featured guitars, bass, drums and piano, a horn section made up of saxophones and trumpets, wind instruments including clarinet and flute, and five talented vocalists. We had brought as many of each of these with us as we could carry, so that we were able to leave every instrument or piece of equipment needed to create a small, functioning music group. In addition, we also transported a fully functioning PA system, generator, and amplifiers, all of which could be hired out for a not-insubstantial amount of money in order to provide a further potential income for the charity.
As ever, when a group from the UK, and particularly from JHN, visits the KiSS communities in Uganda, we were greeted with an astounding welcome and, with performances from young and old members of the community, immediately showing just how vital music is to them. The happiness and excitement, evident on the faces of everybody who had come to meet us, from the youngest to the eldest, was a humbling indicator of just how much our visit meant to these people. After recovering from this party, lessons began on day two. We taught wherever we could find a space, often with an audience of inquisitive local children, who had surely never seen so many instruments in one place. Starting from the bottom up, many of us, the brass and wind instrumentalists in particular, found that the first major hurdle was simply getting our students to create a passable noise with their instruments. The scale of the task ahead – creating a band in just over three weeks – became apparent very quickly, but the enthusiasm of each and every student was something to behold. Unfazed we took our students through the fundamentals of each of their instruments, reading music, maintenance and, importantly, enjoyment. For a group of people so fond of music, we wanted to capture the energy and enthusiasm shown when the community perform their traditional Ugandan music – something we feel we succeeded in.
From four until seven o’clock every evening, our students arrived, set up, warmed up, and worked their way through educational materials donated from the kind parents of the John Henry Newman School, some from the supporters of the charity, but mainly from our own ancient, very dusty, and fondly-remembered libraries of music books. Teaching duets that I remember playing as a child to a 19-year-old named after Nelson Mandela is a more gratifying experience than I could have expected – not least, because it’s an excellent anecdote.
Lessons continued, and students came and went; it was totally understandable that some aspects of our pupils’ lives had to take precedence, especially when so many live in such difficult circumstances, yet they always made such an effort to come and learn with us every day. Their desire to learn was infectious, and any five minute breaks were most likely for the teachers rather than the pupils. Ability improved at an unbelievable rate, so much so that by the end of the trip, to all of our surprise, we found ourselves on stage in a backstreet nightclub in rural Kasambya with our students, playing a more than passable cover of Uptown Girl to a crowd of over a thousand. This was an entirely rewarding, unexpected and enjoyable experience, and in addition quite possibly the biggest crowd that a JHN band has ever played to.
Since our departure from Uganda, our students, to our delight, have formed a band, performed at, and been paid for performing at, two weddings with lots more in the diary. According to emails exchanged with Emmanuel, the tenor saxophonist, their set-list has incorporated not only the pieces that we taught them, but also some of their own creations.
The over-riding impression that we have gained from each of the band members in emails and texts since leaving has been one of enjoyment. Enjoyment in continuing to play their instruments, satisfaction at having the necessary basic level of knowledge to carry on learning as well as the study materials, and the thrill of playing as part of a group of mates. In fact some of the pupils we taught have begun teaching others in the area, proving that these young people are so keen to give back to the community.
It would be very easy, if one were that way inclined, to pick holes in the need for a trip to teach music to a small group of people from two poor Ugandan communities. For example, a trumpet that cost £100 could buy any number of equally valuable things for a family in either of those communities – not least food or education. Yet reflecting on the achievements of the group of musicians that we trained for three weeks, and the well-earned accomplishment of those friends who welcomed us into their community, showed us their homes, and who diligently and patiently studied for us I can call the trip nothing but a success. The importance placed upon encouraging children to participate in activities such as music and sports creates an amazing atmosphere within the communities that has to be seen to be believed, and is something that we all count ourselves lucky to have contributed to.
The lasting effect on the community that this group of musicians, which KiSS will continue to support, can of course not yet be measured. From what we have seen so far however, I doubt that any of us would be surprised to be given a severe run for our money the next time we see them. Watch this space for the KiCA Music Mission 2017…