In a corner of a parking lot just off the Spanish Town bypass, on a hot August afternoon, something profoundly creative was happening.
A large group of teenagers in yellow T shirts sat under the tent. They shifted in their seats, smiled, murmured to each other, stared, coughed, smiled, made faces, closed their eyes, ran their hands, their fingers, over their instruments, even played a muted note or two.
Yes, they all had instruments. The Band was ready, and waiting.
The Bob Marley quote at the bottom of the program told us: “One good thing about music: When it hits, you feel no pain.” Yes, we knew. No pain, but only pleasure at the closing concert of the Food for the Poor Jamaica Band Camp 2013. The music soothed; and as Food for the Poor Chairman Andrew Mahfood told us, it had already brought tears to his eyes when he heard the band’s director, Jeffery Brown, play. In just over two weeks, astonishingly, Mr. Brown had brought this group of around fifty young people from the surrounding area of Ellerslie Pen together to learn instruments and make music. I should add, while I am at it, that some ten to fifteen students were from Barbara’s Village – a remarkable project started near Spanish Town in 2006 by one woman. Barbara Gilbert is no ordinary woman, but all that is another story.
The whole band warmed us up with the very Jamaican “Rukumbine” and a rollicking version of Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In“ at each end of the program. In between, Mr. Brown introduced different sections of the band, who played group pieces interspersed with solos.
The trumpeters were a little brash, as all good trumpeters should be. Boys and girls, and the girls had a bit of sass, too. Their soloist, Ian Crossbourne, had a touch of the showman about him. As he played, his smile kept trying to burst out; and it’s hard to play the trumpet while grinning broadly. At the end, he kissed his instrument. Ian plays in the St. Michael’s Marching Band downtown, we are told. I could see a young, Jamaican Wynton Marsalis there – that irrepressible, boyish pleasure in playing music. I hope that Ian goes far.
Compared to the trumpeters, the all-male group of saxophonists was just…cool. The Coltrane touch, perhaps. Soloist Joshua Shreves, now in his fourth year of Band Camp, played “Hero” - not an easy song to sing or play convincingly. Joshua played a gentle, thoughtful version, with one or two interesting jazzy touches. As he started playing, I noticed his face took on a dreamy, far-away expression. Beautiful.
Then there were the all-girl flautists, who played a delicate version of “Amazing Grace.” The flautists were sophisticated young ladies. The five-man team of trombonists played a robust version of a hymn, “My God is Awesome.”
I particularly enjoyed the clarinetists, a group of seven boys and girls. They sat close together, focused and intent, somewhat introverted. Their version of “We Are the World” was sweet and heartfelt. To some this song might seem sentimental; but I found the clarinetists’ version immensely touching.
We heard from the “camp baby,” little Aliah Thomas, too. Along with Shamel Robinson, she played a recorder duet, her eyes getting rounder and rounder.
And then there was the “noisy crew,” as Mr. Brown called them: the substantial drum section. The snare drums popped and crackled; the bass drums whirled us away into the stratosphere, the boys’ heads nodding energetically. There was more gender segregation here; I wished there had been one or two girl drummers. The drummers gave us some “brawta” right at the end – a remarkably complex pattern of rhythms, really displaying their skills with energy and delight. What a way to end the concert.
But that wasn’t quite the end of things. Just before the certificates were handed out, Andrew Mahfood told them to bring their instruments with them – because the instruments now belonged to them. A huge wave of astonished delight rippled through the group. The trumpeters shouted, and Ian “Marsalis” Crossbourne actually threw his trumpet in the air (thankfully, catching it deftly). One girl dabbed at her eyes. A clarinetist hugged her instrument. The trombonists waved their instruments over their heads joyfully.
After they had calmed down, there was, of course, the Vote of Thanks, given by two of the students. No Jamaican ceremony is complete without a vote of thanks. There was much “shushing” among the band as one young lady began her speech, “My fellow musicians and I…”
I loved that. Fellow musicians.
We stepped out into the bright sunshine. The drummers could not resist a little more drumming to see us off, as the Band headed for a celebratory “after-party” inside the Food for the Poor headquarters (the families who had made up most of the audience stayed outside).
In all of this, two people cannot be forgotten; they are the Band’s guardian angels. Sandra Ramsey, who heads Food for the Poor’s Prison Ministry and initiated the Band Camp program (now in its fifth year), was overwhelmed with pride and emotion as she handed out certificates. Director Jeffery Brown, a man of relatively few words, kept time with two drumsticks in his hand, turning quietly towards the band when it was time for another tune.
One more thing: It was announced that Tennis Jamaica has offered a two-week program for the Band – including tennis rackets. This is very generous, and the young people were clearly excited at this unexpected bonus.
And there is a distinct possibility that a Food for the Poor Choir may be in the making. Music knows no bounds.
If you would like to learn more about Food for the Poor and support their programs, please take a look at their website: http://foodforthepoorja.com/