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Instruments for Africa

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In May, 2012 I was fortunate enough to take my second trip to Africa, and once again the good people at the Ottawa Folklore Centre donated a guitar for my journey with the intention that I would find a good home for it along the way.

My daily adventures throughout South Africa and Namibia left me agog at the stark beauty of the land and warm kindness of the people. With the guitar constantly in tow I sought every opportunity to absorb the music around me and share my own musical culture with the smiling people I encountered.

With a loose itinerary I decided to spend the last week of my vacation in Zambia. As the bus crossed the border it was clear that the relatively stable social conditions enjoyed in South Africa and Namibia had not yet reached Zambia. The highway instantly deteriorated into a dirt strip rife with cavernous potholes, roadside homes and towns were replaced by tin and tar paper shacks while children dressed in rags worked hard pounding millet. If anything remained the same it was the quick smiles I met whenever I took out the guitar.

In Livingstone I did some digging and found that a nearby school was in need of musical instruments. I made an appointment with the headmaster and asked if their music department would have any use for a guitar. His eyes went wide. “It is nothing short of a blessing!†he exclaimed. “Please wait here while I get the department heads.â€

The headmaster returned with both music teachers and I was given a tour of their facilities.

The Linda School is a public high school with an enrollment of 1,200 students from grade 10 to grade 12. With nearly 300 of the students shuffling through classes in the two-room arts department it's clear that music is a very important and sought-after discipline. Mr. Namaiko and Mr. Muyunda showed me to their office and pointed out the department's prized possession, a small portable boom-box that the teachers use to illustrate musical examples. “We have some CD's of Bach and Mozart that the children really enjoy.â€

Atop a shelf in the small cubicle sat the school's sole musical instrument, a cheap Casio keyboard that has remained unusable since the AC jack broke two years ago.

“With no instruments in the school what do you teach the kids?†I asked.

“We can only teach singing and music theory, but the children work very hard.â€

I was amazed. An entire music department in a large school in one of the country's major cities without a single, solitary musical instrument.

“It may be difficult for you to understand, but here in Zambia one cannot just go out and buy a guitar or a saxophone. It must be ordered from another country and many places will not do business over the internet with Zambia.

“A year ago we had a meeting with the school board and decided that a guitar would be the most practical instrument for us to have here at Linda School and though we secured funding we have still not been able to acquire one,†Mr. Namaiko explained. “So you can see why Headmaster Mateke calls your visit a blessing!â€

The teachers asked if I would give the guitar to the students directly and we made arrangements for me to return the following morning.

When I arrived the next day I was brought to an outdoor auditorium. Rows of hard wooden benches sat before a small stage under a large thatched roof. The seats were filled with kids in their school uniforms and as I entered with the teachers the room fell obediently silent.

I told the kids that I was a music teacher from Canada and that my school had given me a guitar to donate to their school. The room erupted into whispered excitement as six hundred wide eyes stared up at me in rapt attention. The teachers asked if I could play some examples for the kids and I was pleased to do so. I played a short blues and by the second bar the whole room was clapping along in perfect time. They appreciated a few familiar melodies that I had picked up along the way but when I asked if they knew about reggae music it was clear that I had hit a nerve.

I started playing the syncopated chords that open Bob Marley's 'Three Little Birds' and was again blasted with perfect on-the-beat clapping. I sang the opening line, “Don't worry 'bout a thing,†and was flabbergasted when the whole crowd sang the next line back to me in unison.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright!â€

It almost knocked me off my chair. All 300 voices booming out with nary a whisper among them. Together we sang the chorus again, and still louder these impoverished kids, these young men and women that sleep on dirt floors amid dusty streets sang one of the most hopeful and optimistic choruses in the pop catalogue with smiles as bright and wide as the African sky.

“I said, don't worry 'bout a thing because every little thing is gonna be alright!â€

It will certainly stand out as one of my most memorable musical experiences.

After we finished 'Three Little Birds' I stepped down from the stage and asked if anyone would like to try their new instrument. You'd think I was handing out free iPhones in the Glebe; the entire student body jumped forward en masse, every kid doing anything they could just to touch the guitar. I left them with some extra strings and picks and a little booklet of chords and tuning instructions I had drawn up and walked away from the school aglow.

There is no question that guitar is destined to make a very real impact.

As I wound along the sun-baked streets on my way back to the hostel I encountered an older man sitting beside the road repairing shoes. He called me over. “I saw you with a guitar earlier,†he said. I explained that I had just left it at the school. “Oh,†he said, clearly disappointed. “ I was hoping you could show me some chords.â€

The man told me that he occasionally borrows a neighbor's guitar and enjoys playing it very much, but that he found it difficult to find people who could teach him. He had no paper but I had a pen. I drew a fretboard on my own arm and one on his as well, and we sat under a tree for an hour while I showed him a handful of chords, fingering them on my arm while he meticulously copied my actions on his own.

The lesson ended with sincere thanks and hearty handshakes and I continued my walk home. Turning around I glimpsed the man sitting under the tree forming and reforming chords on his arm, his cobbler work completely forgotten.

It struck me how the man's life might be different if he had grown up with the same access to music that we enjoy here in Canada. Maybe he'd still be a cobbler, but perhaps after a long day repairing shoes in the hot sun he could enjoy the solace of making music. Perhaps he would have written a song for his lover or sang lullabies to his children. Or maybe he could have galvanised the spirit of his countrymen like Ali Farke Toure did for Mali or indeed as Bob Marley did for Jamaica and (clearly) much of the world.

Whether his musical soul would have been destined for greatness or simple humble pleasures, he unquestionably deserved the chance that social and political instability deprived him of. It's a sad reality, and one that is difficult to fathom for someone like myself that was born into a culture of riches.

With this in mind I propose a collective effort to equip the Linda School with adequate musical instruments and instructional material. These kids deserve the same musical opportunities that you and I enjoy. Africa is the heart of the world's music, and it's almost criminal that so many have access to so little. I will be approaching individuals and organisations that might have serviceable instruments to donate. When I have acquired a significant collection I will seek financial donations to pay for a container to ship the materials to Zambia.

Can you help?

If you or anyone you know has a clarinet, trumpet, flute, trombone or any musical instrument that can be donated to the Zambian students please email me at tsnelgrove@sympatico.ca . Instructional books and sheet music would also be happily accepted. If anyone has experience in instrument repair and would be willing to donate their services as needed, please get in touch. I would ask those willing to make cash donations to refrain from doing so until I gather enough instruments to warrant a shipment. I assure you that 100% of donated materials will go directly to those in need in Zambia and I will do my best to outfit the Linda School with a full orchestra of instruments.

A huge thanks to Arthur McGregor and the Ottawa Folklore Centre for getting the ball rolling.


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LOVE this story. I enjoyed it in your original travel logs and it was all fresh again reading it now.

I started playing the syncopated chords that open Bob Marley's 'Three Little Birds' and was again blasted with perfect on-the-beat clapping. I sang the opening line, “Don't worry 'bout a thing,†and was flabbergasted when the whole crowd sang the next line back to me in unison.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright!â€

It almost knocked me off my chair. All 300 voices booming out with nary a whisper among them. Together we sang the chorus again, and still louder these impoverished kids, these young men and women that sleep on dirt floors amid dusty streets sang one of the most hopeful and optimistic choruses in the pop catalogue with smiles as bright and wide as the African sky.

“I said, don't worry 'bout a thing because every little thing is gonna be alright!â€

THAT just gave me shivers, and I somehow have water in my eyes now too. So amazing. What an incredible experience for you and for all of them.

I don't have any instruments to donate, but is there any way of maybe ordering up a carton of cheap recorders or something that could start something?


Was thinking of you last night at The Moonshine Cafe with the Sisters Euclid. Good times.

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Yeah that made me cry straight up for multiple reasons. I would love to make a donation for shipment when the time is right. Shall I email you now or will you just let us know via here when the time is right? I "may" also have a guitar that I will look into. I gave an old one I used to play to my sister many years ago and I'm not sure if she still has it. If so I am sure she would be happy to part with it as I know she hasn't made much use of it. Thanks for all that and for re-posting. I missed this entry the first time round.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sorry for the delayed response - jambands and my laptop don't work together.

I will happily put you on my list for future donations Edger, please send me your email addy and when funds are needed I'll send out a missive.

KK, not sure about the penny whistles, but we will likely need things like reeds and strings and stuff. Maybe I can add you to my future mailout too?

Thanks so much for your interest, the instruments are starting to trickle in pretty steadily.

Just picked up a trumpet from a skanky-skank today!

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I'm emailing you because you expressed an interest in helping out the Instruments For Africa drive to outfit the Linda School in Zambia with a full array of concert band instruments.

With the article in last Saturday's Ottawa Citizen (December 15th) came a flood of donation offers. The response has been quite amazing; flutes, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, guitars, keyboards...the list of donations goes on and on. We've also been lucky enough to have several instructional books and even a few music stands dropped off (it hadn't occurred to me how important music stands will be).

Fortunately, the Moncton Times & Transcript will be running the story as well this Friday (Moncton is my hometown) and my brother and mother will help collect any donated instruments from out east. Locally Musicare has been picking up instruments for assessment and donating their services in the form of small repairs as needed.

In short, this drive is proving to be very successful and I should be looking at shipping options early in the New Year. I can't tell you how heart-warming the response has been. The impact this will have on the current and future student body at Linda School is unmeasurable.

Though I'm looking into getting shipping donated this has yet to come to fruition, and aside from shipping costs there will be expenses related to supplying the instruments with spare reeds, strings, etcetera, and obtaining ensemble scores and supplemental teaching materials. To that end I would be happy to receive any cash donations related to this project, no denomination is too small, and again 100% of funds collected will go directly towards benefiting the Zambian kids*.

Donations can be dropped off at the Ottawa Folklore Centre (1111 Bank Street, at Sunnyside) by cash or cheque, marked “Attn: Instruments For Africaâ€. Donations can also be made via paypal. You can use the button below or donate to my email address via paypal: tsnelgrove@sympatico.ca


Thank-you so much for your interest,

Todd Snelgrove

*I may decide to return to Zambia to meet the shipment when it arrives. If I choose to do so I WILL NOT use any donated funds to finance my travel expenses. Again, I assure you any donation will directly benefit the kids at Linda School.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hey all,

I cannot login to jambands from my computer so my updates will be sporadic.

I just wanted to let y'all know the instruments are coming in steadily. The story made the front page of the Moncton Times out east which has already started an instrument drive out east and I've gotten emails from as far away as Nunavut and Vancouver, though instrument drives in those areas are not currently happening.

I have an appointment at the Zambian embassy next week and some cash donations have started to trickle in (mostly from this message board - thanks all), so things are moving forward quite well.

Keep spreading the word everyone, and thanks to all for your help and encouragement.

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So things are moving forward quite well.

I had a meeting this morning with the Zambian Ambassador and they are going to help by trying to waive duty fees and VAT and hopefully help with some shipping, though these things are tentative.

We've decided to expand the scope of this project. The next immediate goals are getting a website, looking for more press Canada-wide and registering as a charitable organisation or and NGO.

If anyone feels they can help, we could use it.

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May I make a suggestion?

Please post your story about meeting the kids and giving the guitar to them on FB. It's such a fantastically written piece that really emotes what you're trying to do here. I feel like you could get some great traction in social circles with it. It's the kind of thing people are going to want to share. This has the potential to be very big and that story is something that will help lead the way, I'm sure of it.

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Hey guys, thanks!

The FB page loads for me as "Admin Panel", I guess it's not like a regular FB page since it's not for a person. (probably why I can't add Friends, like I posted above). It is always asking me if I want to add other Admin people when people Like it though. If I added you as an Admin (if you want), then you could help with the FB :) (though I should learn how to do this myself too...)

I think Todd's original story is better than the one they put in the Citizen (same story but they just edited a bit, plus he's now added to the 'how you can help' at the end). I have that story at the bottom, under the "Started in 2012" title, but I don't think I can "pin" this section. Should I make a new post for it?

Thanks for the suggestions and help!

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