Music May 2012

Band Aid

Teaching Afghan soldiers to play in sync
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Brian Mockenhaupt

“My family doesn’t know what I’m doing out here,” says Bashordost, a sergeant in Afghanistan’s 205th Corps. He asks to be identified by a single name only, because he fears that if his family knew that he’s in the Afghan army, someone might tell a neighbor, and the Taliban might kill him. As a cover for their real jobs, he and several fellow troops from the southern city of Kandahar have pooled their money to buy a taxi. “We don’t know our enemy. They are everywhere,” he says. Nonetheless, three times each week, Bashordost and his colleagues head to an army base near Kandahar Airfield, where they train with their American counterparts. As with nearly every aspect of the war these days, the hope is that such partnering exercises will enable the Afghan forces to eventually take full responsibility for their mission.

In Bashordost’s case, that mission is to play the trumpet. After tea and snacks, the Americans and Afghans in this stripped-down barracks break into groups—trumpets, trombones, euphoniums, drums—and the space fills with a sound that drifts between coherent music and an off-key racket. “Just like sixth-grade band class,” says Staff Sergeant David Proctor, a trombone player with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division band. Today, the Afghan band is practicing a few Russian-inspired military marches. An interpreter helps with instructions, but the Americans have also developed a few communication shortcuts. Specialist James Leggett, a trumpet player, learned a few Pashto phrases for the training sessions: Everyone play together. Louder. Stronger. Breathe. He’ll also play a tune the right way and give a thumbs-up, then play it wrong and give a thumbs-down.

Military bands no longer lead formations into battle, as they did for centuries, but they still serve their original larger purpose: boosting morale and esprit de corps. The 10th Mountain Division has sent soldiers to play at dining facilities and ceremonies and to tour remote outposts, entertaining troops with Avalanche, its six-piece rock band; Task Force Dixie, a New Orleans jazz-and-blues band; and Bunker Brass, a quintet. They’re a talented crew: U.S. soldiers must audition to be Army musicians. Those who make it include some promising high-school graduates, but a good number have studied music in college. After learning in basic training to shoot rifles and throw grenades, they have 10 weeks of band practice and advanced music theory.

Many of the Afghan soldiers, by contrast, become army musicians knowing almost nothing about music. Some are moved more by the prospect of a $400 monthly paycheck than by any deep interest in the subject. But the band’s troubles run deeper than talent, as is true of other parts of the Afghan security forces. While the army’s main band, in Kabul, has 90 members and a full complement of instruments, its other five bands are ragtag, lacking instruments, training, and possibly motivation. This one, the 205th Corps band, which is based outside Kandahar City, has just 11 members. When Chief Warrant Officer Tim Wallace, a trumpet player and the leader of the 10th Mountain Division band, first met the Afghan musicians six months ago, they were poorly equipped and poorly trained. Their instruments were dented, with pieces of tape covering air leaks. The band could play one song, and not very well.

Because few of the Afghan soldiers could read music, the band’s leader, Major Mohammed Khetab Nejrabi, had been teaching by repetition and memorization. Nejrabi graduated in the early 1980s from Kabul’s military music school and served in the army for the next 14 years, first as an office assistant and then as a company commander. He later worked as a cook and a construction laborer. Five years ago, he rejoined the army as a bandleader, using his musical training for the first time. He mostly taught his men the instrument he knows best, which is how the band came to have one man on trombone, one on euphonium, one on cymbals, one on snare drum, one on bass drum, and six on trumpet.

In the months since the Americans began joining their counterparts at the 205th Corps’ weekly formation, the Afghans have mastered six marches and their national anthem. Most of the soldiers have also learned to read rudimentary sheet music. And with money from a special U.S. fund for outfitting Afghan security forces, Wallace bought the band new instruments. He skipped woodwinds, American favorites that would likely be ruined by Kandahar’s dry, searing heat, and instead added a French horn and a tuba, though no one knows how to play them.

And yet Wallace, like other military mentors across Afghanistan, is learning that many of the stubbornest deficiencies here are not material, but institutional. A vivid illustration of the problem comes midway through practice, when Nejrabi tells me he doesn’t hold high aspirations for his band.

“They don’t really like to be musicians,” he says, nodding toward his men, who sit a few feet away, listening. “It’s an easy job, and they’re not going out on missions. They come out here to pass the time, make some money, and be safe.”

As Nejrabi speaks, Wallace stares at him in disbelief. “He doesn’t know the first thing about leadership,” Wallace tells me later. “Why is he saying that in front of them?” He shakes his head. “I have my work cut out for me.”

Brian Mockenhaupt is a writer and former infantryman.
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