Spirit of America in Africa

Sharing hope, teaching underprivileged youth, performing nightly and starting a community band … just a day in the life of the Spirit of America band members on their recent three-week trip to South Africa.

Photos Courtesy of Spirit of America

“Sharing hope with youth through music and the creative arts” was the mission of the all-ages performing group Spirit of America (SOA) on its recent trip to South Africa. Through three weeks of performances and workshops, the members spread the power of music to the local children.

After two years of preparation and fundraising, 150 members of the marching ensemble traveled to the cities of Durban and Johannesburg. In Durban, the group led a week of workshops to help establish a music ensemble in a nearby township and performed a one-hour field show every night. In Johannesburg, SOA continued daytime workshops for the local youth and performed its indoor stage show twice each day.

“I think that one of the big reasons Spirit of America went there was to instill a sense of hope in some of the young people,” says Ian Hale, percussion master for SOA. “Through music and percussion, we wanted to give them another thing they could learn and feel good about doing.”

Personal Preparation

To attend the trip, each SOA member had to raise $6,000 through fundraisers or donations and learn both the field show and the two-hour stage production.

As the trip grew closer, the group rehearsed at 5:30 a.m. five days a week.

“We had to do a lot of preparation,” says Paul Tingley, a trumpet player and adult member of SOA. “I was at my job during the day and during the rest of the time had to pull together a stadium and theatre show.”

SOA is a musical organization based in Orleans, Mass., with members from ages 10 to 60. Founded in the early 1970’s as a hometown marching band, the organization now includes a field and marching band, winter percussion group, fife and drum unit, and wind ensemble.

Many of the younger members are home-schooled, allowing them to integrate SOA training into their curriculums and attend the international trip throughout most of September. “This trip was part of our home-school curriculum,” says Kirsti Pugsley, a 17-year-old percussionist in her eighth year with SOA. “We studied South African history and had tons of fine art credit.”

According to Tingley, whose own children are home-schooled and march with SOA, South African studies were built into a year-long curriculum, even including a guest speaker who talked about HIV and AIDS in South Africa.

“Part of the mission is to inspire and to educate young people,” Tingley says. “It was such a great experience for us to take our young people, share this experience and open their eyes to what a person in a foreign country without as many opportunities or the ability to make music goes through.”

Starting a Band in KwaMashu

The first leg of the trip occurred in Durban, the third largest city in South Africa. SOA partnered with the Kwa Mashu Community Advancement Projects (K-CAP), a youth integrated arts and multimedia empowerment organization, to provide workshops and training to students and instructors in order for the Ekhaya Multi Arts Centre to start its own marching band in the KwaMashu Township (18 miles outside of Durban).

During the day, SOA members and staff taught workshops on music, marching and color guard, introducing many of the students to instruments for the first time.

“The best part about going on this trip was doing workshops with the kids,” Pugsley says. “They had so much energy and were so eager to learn and had so much fun that it made you have fun.”

SOA was able to gift many instruments to the centre through its Re-Sound program, which collects, repairs and donates instruments to needy organizations. “That to me was a highlight because the kids were clearly underprivileged,” Tingley says. “Some of the kids had no shoes. Although we did workshops with some kids, not every kid could participate, and there were kids outside the fences just watching. We handed out harmonicas to them, and the kids had huge smiles on their faces.”

Each evening SOA performed “Exploration!”, its hour-long field show, at King Zwelithini Stadium for hundreds of local children and community members. A pivotal moment of the show features every member of the ensemble playing the drums, and the kids participating in the workshops learned that section and joined SOA on the field for the final performance.

“I got the privilege of standing on the podium with the drum major and directing while there were 200 to 250 drummers on the field,” Hale says. “It was an awesome and very emotional experience; there were a lot of tears on the field on both sides. I think the exchange of information and the genuine response that both sides had is something that’s a pretty life-changing experience.”

Now that they have the tools to start a band, the Ekhaya Multi Arts Centre will continue to communicate with SOA for guidance. “We hope to create a ‘music revolution’ in KwaMashu Township as there is now a lot of enthusiasm amongst the youth about playing instruments and support from parents wanting their kids to learn how to play,” says Edmund Mhlongo, artistic director and founder of K-CAP. “It will be great for us to continue with this exchange program on an annual basis—even if it means fewer members of SOA coming over and at some stage sending our best students over to U.S. for further mentorship.”

Sightseeing Side Trips

While the SOA members considered their South African adventure as a “working trip,” the group did have time for several side trips between their time in Durban and Johannesburg. Sites included the Apartheid Museum, Inkamana Abbey, African Crafts Market and Soweto Township.

“We got a chance to see the living conditions, which are not very good to say the least,” Hale says. “To see all of that and how they sort of decide to live their lives in these diffi cult conditions was really cool. There’s so much joy in the people there because they have each other and the things that they do together, such as drumming, dancing, singing and music. We saw the real deal.”

The group also went on a safari at Kruger National Park. “It was a phenomenal experience,” Pugsley says. “We saw wild dogs, cheetahs, giraffes and elephants—stuff people usually never get to see. We were really lucky.”

Theatre in Motion

Once in Johannesburg, SOA unpacked their sets and jumped into rehearsals for its two-hour stage show, “Instrumental Theatre: in motion—The Fall and Rise of the Phoenix.” Soon the group would be giving two workshops and two performances each day as part of the Arts Alive Festival.

Unlike the Durban workshops, where the same children returned daily, in Johannesburg SOA presented workshops to different groups of students each day. The children ranged from Kindergarten to high school students. Before viewing SOA’s matinee performance, they studied topics such as performing arts, costume design, makeup design, brass, woodwinds, percussion, set construction, backstage tech, mosaic design and instrument repair.

“Instrumental Theatre: in motion” at the Mandela at Joburg Theatre was well-received by both the children in the matinee audiences and the paid festival audiences nightly. “It was a totally different show than what they’ve seen before,” Tingley says. “The show had so many different emotional things: crying, singing, flying, pyrotechnics. They understood it. They were big thinkers.”

Thinking Large

Although SOA has taken many international trips and tours and won numerous accolades over the years, this South African trip will be a fond memory and life-altering experience.

“I kind of came away realizing the things that I thought mattered don’t really matter as much now,” Hale says. “I think that the people of South Africa demonstrated that you can make great things happen out of some really awful things.”

Pugsley enjoyed the workshops as well as the pure thrill of performing. “Just the experience of working with all the kids and everything they gave it—the whole experience— was amazing,” she says. “In Joburg Theatre it was so fun; we were back in the pit performing with all of our friends. Just performing together and seeing how much it came together felt great.”

SOA hopes to continue providing musical training and instruments to those in need and inspiring others with their productions. “We grew musically and spiritually, and it keeps us motivated to do the next thing,” Tingley says. “This has us thinking large.”

About the Author

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor and web editor for Halftime Magazine and a freelance journalist and communications professional in Los Angeles. She marched fl ute at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band, where she now works as a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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