San Francisco based oboist, educator,
This article first appesred in the 2008-09 newsletter of the African Blackwood Conservation Project.
I’m a professional oboist. I first learned of Sebastian when I saw, in 1992, the BBC documentary, Mpingo–The Tree that Makes Music. Though I’d known about ABCP since it first appeared on the Internet, it wasn’t until 2002 that I contacted and later met Bette and James Harris. In 2003, I created a PowerPoint lecture performance called “Mpingo’s Fruit: Harvesting the Music Tree – the people, the places, the process,” and began to occasionally lecture about Sebastian and other blackwood conservationists. With ABCP help, I won a 2008 Global Connections grant from the organization Meet the Composer. The objective was to travel to Tanzania and collaborate with local musicians “to create via improvisation, a new piece of music that will bond the people who have the trees from which woodwind instruments are made, with the people who play those instruments.”
Soon after I arrived at Mount Kilimanjaro Sebastian showed me the Makuyuni plot (see story, pg. 1), and drove me down a bumpy rural road to show me a lone mpingo tree. Elizabeth took me to a teacher’s meeting, and I played. They’d never heard the oboe, were amazed that it was manufactured from mpingo, and were surprised to learn that we in the West are so dependent upon them and their environment. “Does anyone want to try to play?” I asked. I persuaded two male teachers to honk away with gusto and with much delight for the audience. That happened the next day, too, at Singachini Teacher’s College in nearby Moshi.
At every opportunity I interviewed Sebastian, asking, “How has the ABCP changed your life?” He said, “I have more work for myself. But the project helps me to travel and my ideas are able to spread. It’s growing every day.” When I asked for an example he said, “OK, this man here. I have taught him to plant coffee. First he planted bananas. Banana trees are fast growing – one year. Bananas provide shade for the coffee. Coffee is planted under the bananas and also beans. This man is very proud because he has a crop that can feed his family and will soon have 40 pounds of coffee that he can sell and his life will be very different. He can help his children to go to school. The people in the villages, like Makuyuni, have nicer houses, and their children are going to school.”
Next community in serious need of help, I’m told, might be Simanjiro. I retain my impression that Sebastian is using mpingo as a way of elevating the spirit of both the land and the people. While over 100 years from now, there may very well be a cash crop of straight, big trees for the making of musical instruments, for the immediate future there seems to be a whole lot of improved farming, better education, and certainly healthier, less impoverished life.
Thanks to Sebastian’s and Sixtus Koromba’s efforts, I collaborated with four astounding musicians. Their traditional music was wonderful, their personalities distinctive and delightful, their dancing uplifting, and their antics hilarious. I have never laughed so much nor been so musically happy in all my career. They are 3 farmers and a fisherman from the Kurya tribe. Their world – no electricity, poor sanitation, no technology - is so radically different from mine and yet the connection – the musical bond, was both clear and intriguing. Despite the language barrier, we became friends. I miss them terribly.
Their handmade instruments are so different from my sophisticated oboe. They had never heard of jazz. So there I was, female, white, mostly classical oboe player, teaching four attentive African men about the history of jazz, how it came to America.