This was my third tour to Guatemala. What a privilege to visit this beautiful country and play for the amazing Guatemalan People!
I was joined by my longtime friends and associates, LaFrae Sci, drums/compositions, Lakecia Benjamin, alto saxophone and Elias Bailey, bass. I love these cats so much because they SWING, play the BLUES, are CREATIVE and can do it all in PERFORMANCE and in WORKSHOPS with students.
In seven days, we gave seven workshops and five concerts. Our programs were organized by U.S. Embassy staff Dawn Suni, Public Diplomacy Officer and Basilia Lopez, Outreach Coordinator. What a fantastic team!
Our first day we reunited with our friends pianist/teacher, Victor Arriaza and saxophonist/vocalist/teacher Rosse Aguilar Barrascout. Rosse founded and runs a music school in Guatemala City called Innato School of Music and we were happy to give three workshops to their students in jazz improvisation, highlighting lessons from jazz and blues masters Mary Lou Williams and Bessie Smith. What a great way to celebrate Women’s History Month!
We arrived very early the next day at the National Conservatory and Municipal Music School of Guatemala to give a workshop. Some of the students had awoken at 2 or 3 in the morning to travel to be there for this early morning workshop. As early as it was, Lakecia suggested we start with a burner from our book that features her, Alto Power. We gave it all we had!
I love the paintings around the auditorium and the diverse ages of the students!
In the evening, we returned to Instituto Guatemala Americano(IGA) in Guatemala City to perform at the Guatemala Jazz Festival. Rosse Aguilar joined us to sing and play the blues and we premiered my new song “Climate Change” and LaFrae’s composition, “Colibri,” based on a Guatemalan folk tradition. We also featured a Mary Lou Williams piece “Ode to Saint Cecile,” the patroness of musicians.
The next day we traveled by van to Huehuetenango. It was a long car ride and we got to see mountains, villages and markets. A great way to see some of Guatemala’s diverse terrain. We arrived at Escual Tipo Federacion in the mid afternoon to give a professional development workshop to primary school teachers. On the following day, we did a similar workshop for student teachers. We gave out kazoos and got everyone improvising on Guatemalan folk tunes. At the end, LaFrae led a line dance on “Do the Hucklebuck.” There was good discussion on experiential learning and how lessons absorbed this way stick.
The climax of our Huehuetanango visit was our concert at the Municipal Theatre. The local orchestra opened the concert with two songs. LaFrae and Lakecia joining on the second. Dawn then explained how our concert was to support women’s empowerment in honor of Women’s History Month. Then I started a call and response bluesy improvisation with the audience of over 500 teenagers dividing the audience into two distinct musical parts. Then, ALL THE LIGHTS AND POWER WENT OUT. That meant no microphones, no keyboard or bass amp. Immediately LaFrae took one of her drums into the audience and began a two-part women’s empowerment chant, “Mujeres…mujeres. Mujeres….mujeres.” Lakecia soon followed enlisting the support of the horn section from the local orchestra. Meanwhile, Dawn conferenced with our local producers and found that all the power in the town was out and not likely to come back any time soon. They tried to rig up something but to no avail. LaFrae and Lakecia led the rest of the concert, about 45-minutes more, with improvised chants and call and responses. The young people left elated, still in the dark, other then lights from people mobile phones. It was a truly extraordinary display of women’s empowerment. Amazing!
With the sun setting we got to get some air and visit a local historical site of Mayan ruins. What a tremendous International Women’s Day!
The next day we gave a workshop at Conservatorio Regional, a modest building with beautiful light, a visionary director and eager students. Elias was moved by the opportunity to show some of the cellists how to hold the bow. I was surrounded by a heap of piano players and some of them are playing jazz. It was a wonderful exchange.
Then, it was on to Quetzaltenango and a beautiful city called Xela. The next morning we gave a performance workshop for the students at Instituto Guatemala Americano in honor of Woman’s Day. We talked about Nora’s Ark as a story of women’s empowerment and there is interest in doing The Jazz Drama Program musical. We hope to get this going next year. It would be ideal for this community.
We had the evening off in Xela which was lovely. The following day we gave a concert at the Municipal Theatre as part of the Guatemala Jazz Festival. It was a beautiful old hall and the people loved swinging music. After Lakecia tore things up on “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” by Charles Mingus, we gave them an encore of “On the Sunnyside of the Street.”
The final day we returned to Guatemala City to play for a gathering at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence. Ambassador Todd Robinson is the epitome of class, warm heart, deep into the arts, and someone who truly brings people together with his intelligence and innate sense of what makes people tick. It was an honor to perform for the second year in a row at his house. We had a thrill bringing Rosse Aguilar back up to play with us and Victor Arriaza sat in as well. A fantastic climax of a wonderful week on the road for cultural diplomacy through JAZZ on behalf of The U.S. Department of State and The Jazz Drama Program.