KINGSTON, Jamaica - Eight musicians from the 257th Army Band spent a jam-packed two days in Jamaica sharing information and performing with one of that island nation's premier military bands July 1 and 2.
The visit, part of the subject matter expert exchange (SMEE), helps improve the ability of U.S. and partner militaries to work together, deploy together and learn from each other. Subject matter expert exchanges are one aspect of the National Guard State Partnership Program which provides unique partnership-building opportunities between U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia and foreign countries.
According to Capt. Tamara Tomlinson, District of Columbia National Guard International Partnership Specialist, "subject matter expert exchanges provide our Soldiers the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and skills learned in military occupational specialties."
Since 1999, the D.C. National Guard and Jamaican Defence Force (JDF) have partnered and conducted information exchanges in aviation, operations, logistics and maintenance both in Jamaica and in the National Capital Region. However, this is the first information exchange among the two bands.
The Capital Guardians arrived at the band practice room July 1 with two dozen Jamaica Military Band (JMB) Soldiers patiently waiting in a room warmed both by the tropical heat and the fans circulating the hot air.
After unpacking instruments, they immediately settled into the familiar-brass horns with brass horns, woodwinds with woodwinds, and the percussionists in the rear of the seated formation.
A list of songs neatly written on a chalkboard formed the playlist for a concert the new joint band would perform in less than three hours.
"I found out when we got off the van that the JMB had planned the concert," said 1st Sgt. Brian Jones, the senior member of the 257th Army Band SMEE ensemble. "So needless to say there was little time for pleasantries, we had to get ready for a performance."
The Warrant Officers' and Sergeants' Mess served as the concert venue and for one hour the joint band played their way through a combination of contemporary and traditional military music that left the audience tapping their feet.
But the loudest applause was reserved for a popular reggae adaptation of "Save the Last Dance for Me"-paying homage to Jamaica's homegrown music that is enjoyed internationally and timed well to coincide with the celebration of International Reggae Day. With no written music in front of them, a few of the 257th musicians relaxed their instruments spending a few minutes enjoying the music, while their Jamaican counterparts played.
"Every band has a few memorized songs that you can just perform to get the audience going," explained Jones.
"The performance was awesome," said JDF Sgt. Robert Johnson. "Just to see that there was not much rehearsal and the two bands performed together on short notice was amazing."
The second day provided extended opportunities for the two bands to discuss training, band operations and music.
"Much of what Jamaicans hear is reggae and drum-based music," said Warrant Officer Class 1 Albert S. Hird, JMB Band Officer and Director of Music. "We are looking for ways to translate some of the popular music into instrumental versions suitable for a military band. They [the 257th ensemble] are very professional, very disciplined. Their music is of high standard."
The 257th bandsmen shared their musical style and in turn the JMB provided a few tips on playing popular Jamaican music such as ska, calypso and, of course, reggae.
"If you are a professional musician and can read the music, you can play anything. That is being technically sound," said Staff Sgt. Terry Rich, percussionist. "It's all in the interpretation. That can really make the difference," he added.
For Spc. Jacob Kohut bassoon and saxophone player, the opportunity helped him to have a stronger appreciationfor the similarities of the two bands.
"We had time to talk about how the bands function, how our militaries function and musical culture. It allowed me to make a deeper connection than what I was expecting," Kohut said. "I was of the mindset that you have to travel with people and be around people for a while in order to connect. But the synergy was expedited with this visit."
The SMEE visit offered the 257th first sergeant some insight on the value the JMB places on technical proficiency.
"They stress technical proficiency of their instrument as a key component in their promotions," Jones said. "Seeing this as a first sergeant it really allowed me to think about what we can do to actually look at things from that perspective as well because I think it will help the overall mission capability of our band."
The SMEE visit included an added bonus with an invitation for the 257th ensemble to play for the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica during the U.S. Independence Day celebration on the island.
"Closing out our visit with the U.S. Embassy celebration was incredible, said Kohut. "I had a great time. Wish we could have been there longer but we packed a lot in two days."
"It was lovely playing with the Soldiers from the U.S.," said Pvt. Barbara Brandford-Witter, JMB saxophone player. "I hope we can do something like this more often."