Friday, January 21, 2011

Madmen Across The Water

Last week, we had some visitors to Kandahar Airfield. Well, having visitors is not an unusual thing, but having another military band is. The Band of the Parachute Regiment, located in Colchester, England, United Kingdom, has been in Afghanistan for a few weeks making a tour of the country and they spent a good deal of time at KAF. Those of us in the 10th Mountain Division Band were able to spend plenty of time getting to know them and play some music together. Some of them also joined a few of our members on a couple of trips to work with the Afgan National Army Band located near here. We had initially planned to do a big afternoon concert together, but for whatever reason those plans got scrapped. We still managed to spend two mornings doing some concert band rehearsals together. Given that 10th MTN hasn't had to do any full concert band material since before we left the US, it was a bit strange to sit down in the Fest Tent amongst a combined group that totaled over forty members. We started off with a band transcription of Michael Giacchino's music from the recent J.J. Abrams Star Trek film, which was a lot of fun. We played through some other tunes that were written for concert bands (one of which, "Invictus" by British composer Philip Sparke, was commissioned by my previous band, The Army Ground Forces Band at Ft. McPherson, GA), and all I'll say about that is that the formula for concert band music is getting a bit stale--everything is an overture, start fast, have a slow lyrical middle section, then a big rousing finish and a loud BANG at the end. It's as if composers are afraid that they might be remembered for only one piece, so they should throw in everything they can to make sure it's all covered. But I digress.

Wednesday night, the Regiment's rock band "Ripchord" performed a scaled-down show at the Dutch Corner, a sort-of lounge area operated by the Netherlands. I didn't see the whole thing, but I loved their closing number, a song called "Fire" by the British indie band Kasabian. They promised that to get the full effect, we really needed to see the whole group--more guitars, background singers, and a horn section (pictured above). Fortunately, we only had to wait for Friday night as a joint performance was being planned with our rock band, Avalanche. It was a bigger--and louder--show, with Ripchord rolling through their set with enthusiasm, followed by Avalanche's heavy metal smackdown. The two bands joined for a big finale, and a good time was had by all despite some occasional problems with the sound system. (And Avalanche's NCOIC who got so into the performance that he hurt his back.) I was just glad I remembered to wear earplugs.

Saturday morning a few of us joined the BOTPR for a ceremonial performance...kind of. We headed to the bazaar area, which opens to numerous vendors every Saturday. The bazaar includes a school, and we were going to play some music for the students. Since their 2nd trombonist was gone with our staff to work with the ANA band, I filled in for him. It was a bit of a challenge sight-reading their selections, most of which I hadn't seen before, but I think I managed to pull it off without too many problems. We played through selections as diverse as the opening of the "Light Cavalry Overture," the "Post-horn Gallop" (featuring two trumpeters on post-horns, which are basically small straight bugles--no valves), "Wizard Weezes" from the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Quincy Jones's "Soul Bossa Nova," famously used as the theme for the Austin Powers films. In a surprising move, we had a bunch of kids from a predominantly Muslim culture clapping along to the Yiddish tune "Hava Nagila." (!) We ended the performance by marching around the school building playing the march "Punchinello." This was not an easy thing to do, as the ground was covered with lots of small and medium-sized rocks, in addition to the fact that we Americans were not familiar with the British marching commmands. Afterwards, the British gave out some football (soccer!) jerseys and played a football (soccer!) game with the students. Many of those not in the game ended up playing on the merry-go-round, which is where I wound up as well. Who would've expected to be pushing a bunch of kids on a merry-go-round on a Saturday morning in Afghanistan? I later decided that that was my exercise for the day.

In all, it was a fun week and we enjoyed the chance to work with a different group of musicians and get to make new friends. Their French horn/keyboardist celebrated his birthday one night, and a few of us had a celebratory dinner at TGI Friday's, where I appreciated watching him dance on the chair like I had to for my birthday. We will hate to see them leave so soon, but we all enjoyed getting a chance to foster some international cooperation through music. Cheers!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Blame Game

One of the reasons I've been writing this blog the way I have, as much as I have, is to give readers back home in the US a glimpse into what life is like as an Army bandsman deployed overseas. It not only serves as a record for me to look at later on, but it makes it easy for me to quickly tell as many people as will read what is happening in this corner of the world. (And now they can claim I'm scientifically illiterate for figuratively claiming that our planet has corners!) But today I'm going to comment on what I see happening in the US, based on the information that I get in theater. Again, these are my views and opinions, and I will do my best to see that they don't reflect negatively on the unit or the Army in which I serve.
After I woke up this morning, I headed to the dining facility to enjoy a quiet breakfast, expecting to glance at football highlights on the TV (Seahawks over the Saints?! Who saw that coming???) and enjoy my pancakes and oatmeal while trying to make a little progress on the e-reader version of the novel I've been reading for over a year. Instead, I saw CNN's breaking news bulletin about a shooting in Arizona that left several people, including federal judge John Roll, dead and many others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), severely injured. They had a suspect in custody, were looking for others, and the talking heads were already pontificating on the social and political fallout.
They had commentators--I didn't know any of them, and can't place their political biases--trying to make as clear as possible that the suspect wasn't talking, and all they knew was what he posted on YouTube and MySpace: nonsensical ramblings about dreaming, currency, and his failed attempt to enlist in the Army. (News reports claim that the Army rejected him, and privacy laws prevent them from saying why. I take comfort in the fact that I'm not serving next to someone who thinks that shooting up a grocery store is an acceptable way to get things done.) The anchors--not the commentators, but the people who speak for the network--mentioned controversial politicians and political movements, and how their desire to unseat this Congresswoman may have inspired this lunatic. The commentators continued to stress: "We don't know that there's any connection here!" But the network continued to repost graphics on the screen linking that political movement with the shooter for several minutes. We're not saying that they're connected...just implying that they are.
People--including the local sheriff--complained about the poisonous political rhetoric, both in Arizona and the nation at large. In the same breath, they essentially say "It's the fault of those people that things are so bad!" The actions of a madman inevitably invite demonization of one's political opponents, no matter how ridiculous the comparison is.
People are so eager to place blame that they forget to lay blame where it belongs--squarely at the feet of the person who committed the crime. Millions of people watch network and cable news. They see violent movies and television shows. They listen to political radio shows. They read the paper. They read spy novels. They read blogs. (That's right...if you're reading this, you're one of them.) The knee-jerk reaction of the experts is to find what is wrong with society that causes a person to shoot up a classroom, or a grocery store, or blow up a federal building, or hijack an airplane. The truth is, society doesn't make people do those things, because millions upon millions of people are in our society, and they don't commit acts like that. The people who do these types of things are unhinged, disturbed people. If one thing doesn't trigger them, something else will.
Mark David Chapman claimed that he shot John Lennon because Lennon was an anti-religious hypocrite. (I suppose a lot of people probably thought that about Lennon; that's beside the point. After all, I'm a huge Beatle fan and love the vast majority of Lennon's songwriting.) But everyone else who didn't care for Lennon didn't think that shooting him was a good solution. Did John Wilkes Boothe really think that killing President Lincoln and his cabinet members would help the South? No...he didn't think at all, except about his own rage. If the Civil War had turned out differently, we'd likely be reading in history books about how some controversial decision led to Boothe's murder of Jefferson Davis. I have no sympathy for the "Trenchcoat Mafia" that shot up Columbine; I was something of a social outsider in my teenage years, but never did I think that killing my classmates would solve that problem. (For the record, I ended up being less socially awkward and still keep in touch with many of my high school friends.)
Yes, our political climate is angry and contentious. It is easy to dehumanize those with whom we disagree, because if we make them seem less human it is easier to ignore the faults they share with us. By claiming that all opponents of President Obama are racist, we can ignore the serious concerns they may have about his policies. By claiming that the President is arrogant, we can ignore that he must make numerous difficult decisions everyday and that he will be criticized no matter what he does. But to assume that the vast majority of people on either side of the aisle are so dangerous that they encourage nutcases to shoot political leaders is to reveal more about the critic than the opposition: "I devalue my opponents so much that I don't think they are capable of rational thought or responsible action." Assassins have been around much longer than handguns, terrorists have been around much longer than the internet. People do inhumane things because they've lost touch with their own humanity. Let's not let that be an exuse to lower the bar by attributing the cause to people who are innocent of the crime.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010--What A Year

2010 is over and as usual there are all sorts of "year in review" things going on. So, I figure I might as well do a blog about the year that I had.

*January started with me in Atlanta, enjoying a New Year's Eve party with a bunch of friends from there. I was staying with a couple of my best friends from the Army, and got to meet some new folks as well. It was later in the month that we got our first notice from HQ that the band might be deploying in the fall. At the end of the month, I became an uncle as my sister and her husband welcomed their healty, happy little girl Kaitlin into the family.

*February was when I finally got to meet Kaitlin for the first time, though my flight out of Syracuse was delayed a day by snow. That delay, however, resulted in me being called at the last minute to conduct the band for a ceremony a Ft. Drum. Funny how things work out some times!

*I don't remember much of note happening in the spring months, other than training up for deployment and continuing normal band missions with the 10th Mountain Division Band. However, April, right after Easter, saw me fulfill my lifelong dream of watching a Space Shuttle launch, as Discovery made a flawless pre-dawn flight.
*Also, my hometown of Nashville, TN was covered in a flood of historic proportions, the biggest on record for the area. Three states were directly affected, and numerous people were killed. The national news media largely ignored the story in favor of the BP/Gulf of Mexico oil spill that happened about the same time. Fortunately my family all managed to make it through safely.

*In the summer, I traveled a lot. I made a few trips to Atlanta to visit friends and Nashville to visit family. I managed to work in some quick side trips to Columbus, GA and Knoxville, TN as well.

*I haven't been able to see as many concerts as I would like, but I did manage to squeeze in trips to New York City to see the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall a couple of times (my college friend Jeremy Wilson plays in their trombone section) and at almost the last minute I managed to snare a ticket to see Chicago on Broadway, with Ashlee Simpson-Wentz in the lead role of Roxie. I also saw Canadian progressive rock band Rush on Long Island, a great show that included a complete performance of their landmark album Moving Pictures. Musical satirist "Weird Al" Yankovic made a somewhat last-minute stop in Watertown, and I was surprised to be able to meet him after the show.

*One of my Atlanta trips was timed to coincide with the annual Fan Appreciation Show by the Lost Boys, one of my favorite bands in the Atlanta area. They are tremendously entertaining and have produced four excellent CDs. Originating with the Georgia Renaissance Festival, they present themselves as "the original rock band from 1599" and play a mix of original songs with traditional Renaissance tunes and parodies of popular songs with new Shakespearean lyrics.

*I was also able to see excellent productions of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, and a comical Hamlet: the Musical at Atlanta's New American Shakespeare Tavern, a great place to see a play (and have a shepherd's pie).

*One of my Nashville trips included a performance by students from the music camp held by electric bass virtuoso Victor Wooten, best known for his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. His brother Roy "Future Man" Wooten and saxophonist Jeff Coffin, now with the Dave Matthews Band, also joined in. Never pass up a chance to hear any of these guys play!

*On Labor Day weekend, I made it back to the ATL for DragonCon, one of the nation's largest science fiction/fantasy conventions. I was able to meet several cast members of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, in addition to folks from Stargate SG-1 and Firefly, and several other similarly-themed shows. Also, lots and lots of Stormtroopers.

*In October, I moved out of my house in preparation for deployment. I'm indebted to the folks who let me stay at their houses over the next couple of weeks!

*October 16, the Brass Quintet departed for Afghanistan.

*Since then, we've played all over Kandahar Air Field, taken a Christmas trip to FOB Lagman, and began doing some work with the local Afghan Army Band.

*2010 will always be etched in my mind as the year I went to Afhganistan. I look forward to remembering 2011 as the year I left Afghanistan.

Happy New Year!