KENITRA, Morocco, - With the historic landing site of U.S. and Allied forces in World War II as the backdrop, the Utah National Guard's 23rd Army Band performed one in a series of memorable patriotic concerts throughout Morocco July 1-7.
Kenitra, known under French rule as Port Lyautey (1932–1956), was captured by the U.S. Navy from the Vichy French in November 1942 during the American invasion of North Africa.
Nearly 70 years later, beneath the shadows of the Kasbat Mehdia, was a top-notch music ensemble featuring the ceremonial 23rd Army Band and crowd favorite Rock Band, performing under the direction of Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Denny Saunders.
The contrast in cultures was evident as a group of horsemen wearing traditional clothes, gave an honorable welcome as they charged in unison past the Americans in attendance, a performance inspired from historical wartime attacks of Berber and desert knights.
There was nothing remotely resembling American pop culture at this historic venue, yet the packed venue came to life as the Rock Band played Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." The crowd gave ovation after ovation as the show went on late into the evening.
"Given the historical significance of the location, the way we were received and treated by the local people, the national attention the event attracted, it was then that I realized what a big deal this trip really was," said Saunders.
"The significance of the event cannot be understated," said Lieutenant Colonel Brent Baxter, executive officer of 97th Troop Command, the unit that oversees the band. "Ultimately, fulfilling the request of the U.S. ambassador to Morocco and performing at nine venues in a 10-day period was an amazing feat."
The Utah Guard began its relationship with Morocco in 2003 through the National Guard's State Partnership Program. Since 2004 the Utah Guard has participated in more than 75 events with the Moroccan military in Morocco and in Utah.
But this trip, in particular, offered a glimpse of the diversity, traditions and social customs found throughout Morocco and how the common-shared love of music unites us all.
Nestled in the sprawling streets of Rabat, the capital of Morocco, the Band's tour officially kicked off with a night under the stars at the U.S. Embassy. Full of the same glamour and glitz of a Hollywood red-carpet event, guests were swept through security checkpoints, and the flashing of cameras lit up the night as the greater diplomatic community descended upon the Embassy's grounds. What more appropriate venue than to perform for the person who helped make this all possible, Samuel Kaplan, U.S. ambassador to Morocco.
With one prominent exception, the evening belonged to the Band's jazz combo. In Kaplan's own words, "a band rolled in from the State of Utah and took Morocco by storm." Guests danced well into the night, and as the set came to a close they were asked for one, two, and then three encores.
"Your team brought the spirit and joy of America to this far-off place in Africa," Kaplan told the Band. "[You] made me and everyone else smile; [you] made us all proud."
Prior to the performance at Sidi El Abed beach, each Band event had intended to draw in visitors, but here on the coast a few miles southwest of Rabat, it was clear that the 23rd Army Band were in fact the visitors. Here was a secluded beach, hidden from the general population and city traffic, beachgoers lay soaking up the sun, and out of nowhere emerges a sizeable group of Americans carting loads of musical equipment.
It was clear that many of the locals were caught off guard by the American "invasion," but the ear-catching rehearsal drew in curious beachgoers, and their wonder quickly turned to fascination as the Rock Band's electric energy engulfed the listeners.
A vivid ocean sunset complemented the Band's musical score with the crowd silhouetted against the Atlantic backdrop. What began as a seaside anomaly ended as an intimate and memorable experience shared by all.
There is much to be said about celebrating America's birthday in Morocco. First, the significance of the day underscores the long-standing relationship between the U.S. and Morocco, which began in 1777 when this African nation was the first to recognize the independence of the U.S. from Great Britain.
But more importantly, this was a day shared with other Americans abroad, where one truly felt what it is like to be an American.
Baxter, who has spent the Fourth of July away from home numerous times in the past, may have put it best: "Despite being a long way from [Utah], I felt at home that day, celebrating with other Americans," he said. "It was nice to be with a group of people who were unified in purpose. For once, I felt at home in a country so far away."
The trip concluded amidst a sea of children at the Harhoura Summer Camp in Temara. The Rock Band played with an extra zip and attentiveness beyond its usual high level as they performed for more than 1,000 raucous youth.
After all was said and done, soldiers of the 23rd were all excellent ambassadors and performed their mission above and beyond anyone's expectations.
Maj. Karen Nuccitelli, coordinator for the Utah National Guard's State Partnership Program, expressed that the benefits went beyond the typical band mission.
"I witnessed firsthand the numerous benefits bringing the band overseas paid," she said. "They drew a large amount of positive press exposure on Moroccan television helping to further the strong relationship Utah has developed with Morocco."
"But even beyond the obvious benefit of offering morale to the U.S. service members and their families stationed in Morocco and the goodwill performing for the Moroccan public delivered," she continued, "the Band had the opportunity to receive training such as attending pre-deployment briefings, immunizations and completing other Soldier-readiness tasks."
Looking back on the trip, the performance that resonated most with Saunders was the concert in Kenitra.
"The part of that event that was most touching was at the end of the concert when all those little kids were dancing to the music of the Rock Band," he said. "It was as if all language and cultural barriers had come down, and we were able to come together and enjoy the international language of music."
Perhaps most important of all is the lasting impression that the 23rd Army Band left on its audiences, a shared experience between Moroccans and Americans that will last a lifetime.