July 8th, 2007 09:20 EST
U.S. Navy Ship Brings Health Care, Music to Panamanian Youth
Colón, Panama – When the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort arrives in port, thousands of people line up to visit the ship's doctors and nurses. But the Comfort is bringing more than antibiotics and sutures to the people of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is also bringing music.
A contingent from the U.S. Navy band based in Norfolk, Virginia, is traveling with the Comfort to entertain patients, perform at ceremonial gatherings and share its love of music with the local youth. On July 6, the band performed for aspiring young musicians at the Fine Arts School in Colón, Panama.
“Experiences like today are what it's all about,” musician senior chief David Wiley told USINFO after the concert. “It shows how music transcends culture and language ... It's great to be able to touch younger musicians' lives this way.”
Several of the young musicians asked the band members to autograph their music books after the show, and Wiley mused that they are using some of the same books he and his fellow band members used when they learned to play.
Matthew, a young clarinetist at the school, volunteered to take the baton and try his hand at directing the band. Clad in a U.S. Navy sailor's cap, he led the band in a rousing military march.
The majority of the band's program consisted of musical styles indigenous to the United States – jazz and rock and roll. Matthew was particularly impressed by the musicians' ability to improvise solos on the jazz pieces. He said he has a firm grasp of music theory, but he is going to have to practice a lot more before he can improvise like that.
While Matthew is not sure he wants to direct again, Adrian, another student at the school, thinks directing would be a great job. Adrian plays both piano and the drums. “I'd like to play all the instruments,” he said, “but you can't play them all at once. But you can direct them all at once.”
The schools in Colón do not offer music as part of their curriculum, so the Panamanian government established the Fine Arts School to give young people the opportunity to learn about music in the afternoons after they get out of their regular classes. Adrian says he comes every day after school to study and practice.
Much of the Navy band's work during the Comfort's four-month tour of Latin America and the Caribbean involves performing at the ship's health clinics to take patients' minds off waiting under the hot sun to see the doctor. But Wiley says the performances for the young people are what he enjoys most. He said it is gratifying to be able to show aspiring musicians what it is like to work as a professional musician.
There are a total of 13 navy bands stationed around the United States and in Japan and Italy. Membership is by audition only, and the majority of members hold advanced degrees in music or have extensive experience in playing and performing. Most of the members joined the Navy as musicians after successful auditions, but a few transferred into the band from other Navy services.
It is uncommon for Navy bands to spend more than a few weeks at sea with a ship, but this band will accompany the Comfort for its full tour. The Comfort is visiting 12 countries in the region to establish clinics and provide primary medical care and minor surgeries for disadvantaged populations.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By David Shelby
USINFO Staff Writer