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Instruments of Change

Woodwind Quintet Makes Mission of Music Education in Tanzanian Village

By Lauren Brown

Tanzania

Joshua Blumenthal

Joshua Blumenthal

The villagers living outside Moshi, Tanzania, at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, work on the nearby corporate-owned sugar plantation, or they sell avocados on the roadside, or if they’re lucky, they wait tables at the fancy golf club for expatriates and tourists.

They don’t play the trumpet or clarinet.

At least nobody did until last summer, when five graduate students in UMD’s School of Music showed up carting 15 donated band instruments and 40 recorders, to start a combination music and environmental education program.

The Daraja Ensemble, a woodwind quintet, is a new arm of the Daraja Musical Initiative (Daraja means “bridge” in Swahili), a nonprofit that attracts teachers from around the world to teach instrumental skills while fostering an interest in sustainability by highlighting the connection between the clarinet and Tanzania’s mpingo tree, the source of the dark, dense wood the instrument is made of.

For 3 ½ weeks each summer, the students, from primary school to age 20, learn to read music and perform a concert, while also planting mpingo trees, going on hikes and picking up trash. 

The program’s original idea was for students to “touch the clarinet, and touch the tree that the clarinet was made of. These have equal importance, and we should honor and respect that,” says doctoral student Michele Von Haugg, who helped found the initiative’s precursor, Clarinets for Conservation.

A professional musician before she came to UMD, she’s spent the past seven summers in Moshi, a city of nearly 200,000. First, it was just her, a suitcase and 12 clarinets. The following year, she brought along five other teachers, and the number of volunteers has doubled every year since.

When Von Haugg and Joshua Blumenthal (French horn), Grace Ju-Yeon Wang (flute), Michael Homme (oboe) and Sam Fraser (bassoon) first met to form their ensemble at Maryland, she was stunned by their interest in joining her mission.

“One thing that really brought our group together is the idea of education,” Blumenthal says. “We’re all interested in how to use music as an education tool. We’re teaching playing music, but also discipline required to play music and how that applies to life: commitment, showing up, respect for your colleagues, problem-solving independently and collectively.”

Easier said than done. The five spent the academic year juggling their graduate work with raising money and collecting and repairing used instruments, even grabbing the last few on the way to the airport in June. 

They ventured for the first time outside of the city, where they saw stunning beauty in waterfalls, mountains and jungles, as well as the shocking poverty of people living in shacks with no electricity or plumbing. 

Word of the quintet’s arrival quickly spread—“Imagine elementary students meeting LeBron James. That was the kind of reaction we received,” Blumenthal says—and they distributed a total of 15 trumpets, saxophones, keyboards, flutes and clarinets to eager secondary students and the recorders to primary students. 

They walked up to two hours each way to attend the daily general music classes and rehearsals, where the instructors hurdled the language barrier by singing, acting out, using hand signals and relying on bassoonist Fraser’s Swahili-to-English translation book. 

The initiative brought in beat-up buses to take the students to a forest preserve and a tree nursery, featuring talks by local experts on conservation and recycling and spending a day planting little mpingo, teak and acacia trees. 

Beyond that short-term goal, a long-term one is to help develop the most talented students summer after summer in hopes of helping them land a position in the Moshi Police Academy Band—a prestigious and stable job—or win a scholarship to the music program at Tumaini University Makumira a few hours away. (They’ve placed one musician in the band, they note proudly.)

Another goal is to return in the winter. The quintet had hoped to make the extra trip in January, but was hampered by lack of funding. 

“The reality is it’s hard to come back,” Von Haugg says. “That’s the hard part we’ve all had to come to deal with. We started something, and now we can’t check in on our progress.”

To donate money or instruments to the Daraja Ensemble, email darajaensemble@gmail.com.

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The quintet—Sam Fraser, Joshua Blumenthal, Michael Homme, Michele VonHaugg and Grace Ju-Yeon Wang— shown with local conservationist Oscar Mochuwa and guide Luis Karua, tours the Kiviwama Conservation Center. They leave with 45 trees seedlings to plant with the students. Courtesy of Joshua Blumenthal

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