Music May 2012

Band Aid

Teaching Afghan soldiers to play in sync
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.

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