The band exists at the tactical level of relationship building. At the boundary between cultures, the band is the bridge. –Adm. James G. Foggo, Commander U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa
By Musician 1st Class Joseph Schoonmaker
The U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band’s brass band, “Topside,” just returned from a six-week deployment to the Gulf of Guinea aboard USNS Carson City (T-EPF 7) in support of Africa Partnership Station (APS). The deployment took us to Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cabo Verde, each country providing unforgettable opportunities to make connections with people from all walks of life, with diverse cultural backgrounds, using the universal language of music.
The purpose of this deployment was to strengthen partnerships and demonstrate U.S. commitment to West African partners. The mission focused on small boat maintenance, maritime law enforcement, Navy medicine, and community relations outreach, with embarked teams from the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard as well as Sailors from the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish navies.
“Topside” is a traditional “New Orleans-style” brass band. We take great pride in the diversity of music we represent, and in preparation for our performances in Africa, we tried to learn at least one song from each country on the deployment schedule. We do this to demonstrate respect for their culture and to grow as musicians. It also opens the door to collaborating with local musicians, creating unique moments in live performances. We have found audiences from Italy to Latvia to West Africa to be very appreciative that we have invested the time and energy to engage with their music. When we visit countries where language provides a barrier to interaction, music acts as an international language. With the connection of music, the band helps build true and lasting partnerships. As I like to say during concerts and workshops, we are not there to impose our culture but rather to offer a true exchange where each side learns and grows.
We met the USNS Carson City in Dakar, Senegal. At the U.S. Embassy’s 4th of July celebration, we were joined onstage by the popular djembe drummer “Papis.” We also enjoyed a collaborative performance with musicians, dancers, and actors from the National School of Arts, during which they taught us a Senegalese folk song. Our African music education became a theme and the key to our relationships during APS. Prior to the trip, we learned “Conquer the World” by Youssou Ndour featuring Akon. We used both songs throughout the deployment. The highlight event in Dakar was a concert at the African Renaissance Monument during the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament. The crowd, watching the matches on a big-screen TV, joined us for a rousing rendition of “7 Nation Army,” which is used worldwide as a stadium chant, just as Benin won a penalty shootout. The energy was electric and created a truly memorable experience for the band and the crowd.
The next leg of the trip was in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. For our performances and radio interviews, the band was accompanied by two French-speaking U.S. Navy Sailors with local connections. The diversity of the band provided us with an opportunity for genuine local interaction. One of the Sailors, a naval reservist who grew up in Abidjan, taught us an Ivorian folk melody. We played it for the radio shows as well as live audiences. The students from the University of Felix Houphouet Boigny gave us one of the most enthusiastic receptions we’ve ever seen, singing, dancing, and chanting, “USA! USA!”
Our next stop, Sekondi, Ghana, offered further proof of West African hospitality with a welcome party featuring Ghanaian bands accompanied by traditional dancers, gifts of soccer-style scarves, and a red, white, and blue cake. We teamed up for a reggae jam session with a Ghanaian Navy Band in Tema, having a musical conversation. Previously, while underway from Cote d’Ivoire to Ghana, we learned a folk melody from several Ghanaian Sailors who joined Carson City for a few days. As with each country on this trip, audiences immediately recognized the tune and sang along. The music not only brings the musicians together but also, through dancing and singing, encourages the relationships of the other APS crew members with our host-nation partners.
Nigeria brought a welcomed return to Lagos for our band, as we had previously visited during exercise Obangame Express, a large collaborative naval exercise in March of this year. During that exercise, we were introduced to Freedom Park, a special place in the life of the city. We thought it would be a great place to perform, not knowing we would get that opportunity just five months later. Our Nigerian song of choice was “Water No Get Enemy” by afro-beat legend Fela Kuti. Rehearsal leading up to our first performance had a different energy as everyone understood the significance of playing the music of such a significant cultural icon as Fela Kuti, while in the very place he had cultivated a following that would eventually spread throughout Africa and the world. Even understanding the significance of the moment, we could have never imagined the reaction we received. The audience practically jumped out of their seats when we hit the first note! The next day, we performed the same song on Silverbird TV, reaching millions of viewers in and beyond Lagos. Playing Fela Kuti in that city and getting that reaction was a special, unforgettable moment in our musical careers. This demonstrates the power and impact of maintaining relationships with our partners. Our previous trip to Nigeria served to enhance our visit during APS.
Cabo Verde closed out the deployment for us. We were privileged to play “Sodade,” a beautiful Cabo Verdean ballad, outside the municipal market in downtown Mindelo. The band played softly and let the crowd carry the tune. It was a special moment and a wonderful reflective way to close out our time in Africa. It was the last in a series of outstanding, often unscripted, shared experiences that served as the lasting hallmarks of our deployment.
All told, we performed 40 times for live and broadcast audiences exceeding 15 million. The social media impact has been significant and is, in fact, ongoing. This mission was a pitch-perfect example of what Navy bands are capable of and how they can contribute to broader goals of the Navy and the United States. On a personal note, this deployment has been the highlight of my career thus far and an experience for which I am profoundly grateful.