Corporal Stephen Duncombe is a cornet/trumpet player with The Band of The Parachute Regiment. He is currently in Ethiopia as a member of the latest Corps of Army Music Short Term Training Team, coaching musicians for the Ethiopian Defence Force Band and Ethio-Somali Regional Police Band.
As I write this I am sitting in a cafe in Addis Ababa, drinking the strongest (and nicest) coffee I have ever had. I’m not normally much of a coffee drinker – I find it too bitter tasting – but here it is so smooth that it is hard to resist. It’s all to do with the freshly roasted beans, apparently. And the fact that coffee plants originate from Ethiopia, so they probably know best how to make it.
Anyway, that’s enough coffee (maybe I’ll just have one more). Why am I here? For the past two weeks I have been working as part of a Corps of Army Music (CAMUS) Short Term Training Team, coaching musicians at the Ethiopian Ministry of National Defence (EMOND) training school. Six of us in the team are drawn from the Regular bands of the Corps of Army Music and the seventh member is from an Army Reserve band. We each specialise in a particular section of the band (cornet and trumpet myself) and the team includes a Bandmaster and a Drum Major. We are the eighth team to come out here over the past few years, at the request of the British Embassy in Addis Ababa. This arrangement benefits the Ethiopians because they receive training from experienced British Army musicians; it benefits the Embassy because they use it to build on the diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and the UK; and it benefits the Corps of Army Music, because its musicians get to travel to a new country and have a challenging and rewarding experience that builds on their musical and mentoring skills.
We still have another couple of weeks out here. This coming week will see our training culminate with two events: Thursday is Graduation Day at the EMOND training school and the musicians we have helped train will demonstrate all they have learnt, by performing a marching display and a short concert featuring their various smaller ensembles. After this day, they will become fully-fledged musicians in the Ethiopian Defence Force Band and Ethio-Somali Regional Police Band. On Sunday the Ethiopian Defence Force Band and ourselves will join forces to perform for the annual Remembrance Service at the Commonwealth War Cemetery. As well as the act of remembrance, this event is an important opportunity for the British Embassy to host key figures from the various government departments and foreign Embassies in Addis Ababa, and crucially for those key figures to see us working together with the Ethiopian musicians. The following week we will cross the border into Djibouti to perform for the Remembrance Service there, this time by ourselves.
The past two weeks have been challenging, sometimes extremely challenging, but ultimately rewarding and a fascinating insight into the way military music operates in another country. On our arrival the students gave us a demonstration of their capabilities, and from this, and watching their warm-up and rehearsal sessions, we identified key areas to work on. For marching band we started with individual drill and in particular ‘dressing’ (keeping in line). We got them to march without instruments and developed various hand signals to show them what we wanted (the language barrier has been quite an issue at times!). These sessions also gave us a good opportunity to acclimatise to the altitude (Addis Ababa is 2300m above sea level) and the temperature – we had to run from one end of the square to the other, in order to overtake the band and shepherd them before their counter-marches (turns)! In the section and small ensemble rehearsals our initial focus was on tuning, dynamic range (their default setting was to play very loudly all the time!) and rehearsal technique. For this we gave a demonstration of how our quintet would rehearse a piece of music – i.e. play it through from top to bottom so everyone gains an understanding of the piece as a whole; break it down into sections and rehearse them one by one, slowing the tempo down and focusing on individual instruments where necessary; recap that work and finally play the piece through again as a performance.
A marked improvement
From initially leading the section and marching rehearsals ourselves (using our developed repertoire of hand signals and key Amharic words) we have gradually taken a step back to encourage the section leaders and training staff to take ownership, in the hope that the training methods may continue to be used once we have left. One thing we have found to be particularly useful is to film the marching band rehearsals and play them back to the bands on a TV. It really grabs their attention when they see themselves on TV, and when individual errors are highlighted (diplomatically!) we have noticed a marked improvement, presumably for fear of being highlighted again in front of their peers.
Insightful, humbling and terrifying
It has also been a learning experience for us – we have learnt that rehearsal timings can be very flexible, coffee breaks can be extended and what we would class as basic military discipline on parade is often viewed as optional. We have seen how tennis balls can be attached to metal piping to use as drum beaters, how pens can be clipped onto music stands to hold music in place, and most worryingly, how a TV power cable without a plug can be hot-wired into the mains! Even our journeys to and from the training school each day have been insightful, humbling, and terrifying in equal measure; insightful to see the residents of Addis Ababa go about their daily lives; humbling to see the marked divide between wealth and poverty; and terrifying mainly due to the lack of road markings and general driving discipline, meaning aggressive driving is key and the horn is used as a weapon!
So as I sit here in the cafe with my third coffee (I decided, purely for cultural reasons, that it would be rude not to) I’m thinking of the work that is yet to be done this coming week: we need to put the final polish on the marching displays and ensembles for Graduation Day, we need to work on the music with the musicians who are performing at the Remembrance Service in Addis, and I specifically need to teach a trumpet player how to play the Last Post and Reveille. Further to that, we as a quintet ourselves need to rehearse for the Remembrance Service in Djibouti and for a visit to the local international school which we hope to fit in. It’s going to be another challenging week, but one which I am looking forward to. Finally, for those of you wondering why I’m not in many of the photos: as well as tutoring the cornet and trumpet players, my role is team photographer/media guy – I hope you like my shots!
Please look out for the conclusion to this article in a couple of weeks’ time – writing it will perhaps give me the excuse for a final dose of Ethiopian coffee at the airport. For more updates on our work here in Ethiopia follow the Corps of Army Music on Facebook and Twitter. For more information about the work of our Short Term Training Teams in general, visit CAMus on the British Army website.
Photographer: Corporal Stephen Duncombe; Crown Copyright.