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U.S. Navy Connects with Djiboutian Students, Musicians through Rhythm, Music

15 March 2023

From Lt.j.g. Victoria Piccoli

Music is often referred to as an international language that allows countries, even with different cultures, customs and courtesies, to be able to connect with one another.
“Music is its own language,” said Navy Musician Second Class Raymond Laffoon, drummer, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa band. “No matter where I go, I could play a single rhythm and without a word, communicate to a person or audience.”

The ability to connect through rhythm, notes, and sounds is similar to a conversation, where a bond can be built between two people.

“At the end of the day, we are all people,” said Laffoon. “We all have passions, we all learn the same way, and with music, there is instant collaboration.”

This innate connection was present as the U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa band held six musical workshops across Djibouti as a part of the Cutlass Express 2023 maritime exercise, which took place from March 5-17 in the Western Indian Ocean. 

While naval forces synchronized their movements across the coast, the band’s famous ‘Flagship’ rock band and brass quintet worked with students, aging from 5-17, to showcase their instruments, music,
and talents at the Djiboutian Institute of Arts, Ecole d’Excellence, Fukuzawa, and Lycée dÉtat grade schools.

During the brass quintet’s workshop at Fukuzawa middle school in Balbala, Djibouti, the band’s unit leader, Navy Musician First Class Jason Lucker, asked the group of students if they could guess what his
instrument was called.

As hands shot up, students answered the question with enthusiasm – trumpet!

“Yes, this is a trumpet and it is a wind instrument, which means you use your breath to make noise,” said Lucker.

As the students listened, Lucker continued to press his lips together making a ‘buzzing’ sound to show the vibration that would move air through the instrument.

“The fact this is happening in our school is special,” said Mohamed Kaourah Boulhan, Fukazawa principal. “Our students don’t have many opportunities to see music like this.”

As the workshop turned into a concert, students clapped to the music and swayed as the group played international hits like Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

“It is even better that students are able to see the instruments up close and personal,” said Kaourah Boulhan. “I feel that music is very good for our students.”

For children and students, live music – and the human interaction that accompanies it – is multi-sensory.

“I would like to thank the band for coming because it is so different from what students do in their daily studies of math and geography,” said Kaourah Boulhan. “The students loved it!”

Similar to how the brass quintet moved from workshop to concert at Fukuzowa, the ‘Flagship’ rock band started with a workshop with students from the Djiboutian Institute of Art and ended in a true music exchange.

“I would describe this as jamming with other musicians,” said Navy Musician First Class Andrew Irwin, unit leader of ‘Flagship’ and lead sound technician. “Once you warm up, it’s like finding common ground, then you are in sync with the other person.”

Students from the Institute of Art taught U.S. Navy band members how to perform the Djiboutian national anthem and popular love songs, all without having a copy of music in front of them, using the technique called rote instruction. This allowed the two groups to truly listen and learn from each other.

“It was an emotional moment when we played the Djiboutian national anthem with them,” said Irwin. “It’s like nothing you can describe, it’s like speaking with instruments. There are so many similarities in our two different types of music.”

This common ground was showcased later in the workshop as U.S. band members played with local musicians that would help prepare them to play together during a recorded broadcast for Djiboutian news channel, Radio Television of Djibouti or RTD.

The group collaborated and played songs like Bob Marley’s “Jammin” and Rema featuring Selena Gomez’s “Calm Down” with longer saxophone, guitar, and drum riffs leading to epic solos as both service members and musicians cheered.

“There are a lot of similarities with rhythms,” said Irwin. “We received such a warm welcome, and as we played, everyone was all smiles.”

Music and rhythm connected U.S. service members and the Djiboutian public throughout the series, from the workshops with students to collaborate with local musicians.

“The concert series throughout Djibouti helps to humanize U.S. service members who have served at Camp Lemonnier for the last 20 years,” said Capt. Brian Iber, commanding officer, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. “This allows for our partnership and connection to continue to grow.”

For 20 years, Camp Lemonnier has forged relationships with allies and partners building a foundation of shared values, experiences, and vision aimed at preserving security and stability in Djibouti.

The U.S. shares a common interest with Djibouti and other African partner nations in ensuring security, safety, and freedom of navigation on the waters surrounding the continent, because these waters are critical for Africa’s prosperity and access to global markets.

“I will never forget this experience,” said Laffoon. “These musical workshops and concerts supported the larger relationship between U.S. service members and Djiboutians, we are neighbors and a part of the same community – and you could definitely feel that during the concerts.”

The 14 nations scheduled to participate in CE23 include Canada, Comoros, Djibouti, France, Georgia, Greece, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Tanzania, United Kingdom, and the United States.

AFRICOM, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, is one of 11 U.S. Department of Defense combatant commands, each with a geographic or functional mission that provides command and control of military forces in peace and war. AFRICOM employs the broad-reaching diplomacy, development, and defense approach to foster interagency efforts and help negate the drivers of conflict and extremism in Africa.

For more than 80 years, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-U.S. Naval Forces Africa has forged strategic relationships with allies and partners, leveraging a foundation of shared values to preserve security and stability.

Headquartered in Naples, Italy, NAVEUR-NAVAF operates U.S. naval forces in the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) areas of responsibility. U.S. Sixth Fleet is permanently assigned to NAVEUR-NAVAF and employs maritime forces through the full spectrum of joint and naval operations.

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