Africa 2014: Berklee Musicians Get Global Education

Berklee's BGJI ambassadors return from a trip to Africa filled with life-changing teaching, performing, and cultural experiences.

October 6, 2014

They're lauded as some of the best musicians at Berklee. But when students in the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI) recently toured Africa, they did so without any of the egocentric trappings you might expect from people so young and talented. All they seemed to care about was connecting with audiences and each other in ways that made the music soar and brought listeners to their feet. 

Such was the case one night in Libreville, Gabon, when the student group sat in with local musicians—including alumnus Frederick Gassita ‘92—at a nightclub and played funk, soul, and Afropop. By the end of the night, Berklee and African musicians were crowded together on a small stage while enthusiastic music lovers danced, clapped, and sang along. Spirits—and the temperature—had risen though the roof.

"That was a party, man," said artistic director Danilo Pérez after the show. It underscored an important message for Pérez: despite the fact that BGJI students are serious jazz musicians exploring their creativity to the highest level possible, they are also encouraged through their BGJI experiences to advance the power of music as a tool for making the world a better place.

Serving the Community

The next day was also filled with musical highlights, but the Berklee contingent's work took a more serious turn, as the performers on this BGJI trip—saxophonists Lihi Haruvi and Paul Melhus, cuatro player Carlos Capacho, keyboardist Witness Matlou, bassist Chang Min Jun, and drummer Anthony Fung—played and taught at an elementary school and an orphanage.

It was these community service efforts—a core part of the BGJI mission—that band members said would have the longest-lasting impact on them.

"There were all these kids that had gone through such a troubled past," said Melhus, after the orphanage visit. "Some had been enslaved, or were left on the streets. It gives you insight into how life can be. That was really powerful, especially when they were singing for us."

As the Berklee team began its presentation, the crowd of children ranging from toddlers to teens, appeared to be shy or “uninterested,” to use Fung’s word. But once the music started, the connection between the audience and the band grew. By the end of the event, nearly every child had climbed onto the stage with the musicians and taken their own turn at singing, rapping, or trying an instrument.

For Pérez, the trips to orphanages—the group also visited one in Cameroon the following week—and elsewhere on the continent were all about expressing thanks to the African people for providing the music that spawned scores of contemporary genres.

“We give back to you our gratitude,” Pérez said from the stage at the orphanage. “Where would America be without this great continent, Africa? We wouldn’t have jazz. We wouldn’t have blues. We wouldn’t have Afro-Cuban music. So we came today to say, ‘Thank you.’”

The journey to Gabon and Cameroon in May followed BGJI’s 2013 travel to Benin and Togo, also sponsored and funded by the U.S. State Department and championed by Bureau of African Affairs deputy assistant secretary David Gilmour.

The BGJI Ambassadors gave two concerts at Gabon’s U.S. embassy, one of which was attended by Ida Reteno Assonouet, minister of culture, the arts, and civic engagement, and several other high-ranking Gabonese luminaries.

Lessons Learned

For Berklee music production and engineering major David Rosenspire, who traveled with the BGJI to engineer live sound and record the concerts, Africa changed his entire approach to the work he does.

“This trip has helped to shift my focus away from quality of gear as a primary element of success and more toward cooperation and collaboration with all involved parties,” Rosenspire said. “Working with the guys in Gabon and Cameroon was humbling…it highlighted that the quality of the equipment is not nearly as important as the ability of the operator to serve the audio needs of the band and the venue with the available gear and space.”

Rosenspire’s new philosophy has already led to exciting new opportunities; Pérez hired him to do live sound for his own band’s recent tours in Latin America and Europe.

The trip also served as an intense two-week long masterclass for the Berklee septet in how to improve as performers and educators. After each member of the group gave brief presentations about their instruments to the Gabonese elementary school students, Pérez and BGJI managing director Marco Pignataro turned an otherwise casual lunch back at the hotel into a pedagogical discussion on how to communicate ideas to young audiences.

After the group’s second embassy concert, Pérez sat the group down immediately afterword and provided constructive criticism on the performance. Such extemporaneous seminars are a touchstone of the BGJI experience.

“It’s based on the old mentor/apprentice system,” said Pignataro. “Learning and teaching occurs outside of the classroom and at any moment of the practical experience, many times also by example and continuous feedback.”

One of the most unexpected musical moments of the Gabon trip unfolded in the Artisan’s Market in Libreville’s Saint Benoit quarter, as members of the Berklee crew were trying out African instruments they had just purchased.

What began with Matlou on thumb piano, Melhus on wooden flute, and BGJI outreach coordinator Patricia Zarate on percussion quickly erupted into an extended jam session of about 15 people, featuring musicians from Berklee and Africa, with everyone either singing or playing an African instrument.

It was yet another example of what made the trip a huge success: people coming together not only to play music, but to celebrate the ways that music can cross cultures, build bonds, and raise people up.