Last Monday I had the opportunity to go to Qatar – my first trip out of Kuwait. I flew out Monday because there were no flights available Sunday or Saturday, and I couldn’t get on a flight the previous Tuesday or Wednesday. Flying Space-Required (Space-R) is not exactly a sure thing; it’s barely one step removed from Space-A.
With Space-A, you probably have the flexibility to wait around all day to be told, “sorry, maybe tomorrow.” With Space-R, you probably have someplace to be but don’t have enough rank to get a seat; so the only difference with Space-R is that you’ll need to call the person you had a meeting with and postpone it. Perhaps more than once. But, I finally did get on a plane – a C130 – with one other passenger and a big payload of cargo. I arrived at Al Udeid Airbase (which is actually a Qatari base with an American base nestled within it) in the late morning, went through customs, checked in with billeting, and dropped off my stuff in the open bay I was going to be staying in.
Once I settled in, I made the short walk to my hosts for the trip, the Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) Band and their OIC, Capt. Hansen. In a instance of “it’s a small world,” also at the band is a former Solder of mine, Tech Sergeant Foster, the band’s Operations NCOIC. The AFCENT Band basically detaches a rock band from one of their bands and deploys it to Qatar for four months at a time; the current iteration is from the Air Force band in Japan. While they are stationed at Al Udeid, the band travels extensively throughout the region performing for troops of all services. They are well-run and always entertaining. Over the course of a couple of days, I tried to learn as much as I could about how they do business to see what practices could be incorporated into our operations. We also spent a good deal of time discussing the future of music support to U.S. Central Command, the organization for whom we both work.
The highlight of the trip, however (and the main reason for my visit), was our engagement with two different entities. The first was our meeting with Qatar Army Band leadership. It was the first time either Capt. Hansen or I met with the Qataris so we weren’t sure how much would be accomplished this first meeting; we came to find out we had nothing to worry about. We were met at the gate by LT Abdulla, who was driving a Ford Mustang Shelby, a car he was quite proud of (and rightfully so). When speaking to him, what was immediately apparent was his British-accented English. The Qataris and the British have a close relationship, and in fact, until recently the Qataris had a British music advisor. Several countries in the region employ music advisors from either Britain or Australia; I have been in touch with advisors from a couple of other countries in the hopes of setting up similar engagements.
Me and LT Abdulla after our meeting, his Mustang serving as backdrop:
The Qataris have a very nice facility, which consisted of a group of buildings and rehearsal spaces. We met with three of the unit’s officers and their senior enlisted. After some introductions and their offer of refreshments, the Qataris talked about their band and their goals. They have four bands, each led by an officer. Additionally, like the Kuwaitis, they have a school of music where they teach recruits for two years before assigning them to a band. They are also in the process of building up a camel band – yes, a band that will feature musicians on camelback (the Omanis have a similar band); and a band that will perform on horseback. LT Eisa said that Arabian horses are particularly temperamental so they spend a lot of time playing music in the horses’ presence to get them used to the sound.
As they talked about these two initiatives, I couldn’t help but think of the Sound Off done at FT Myer. For those that don’t know, during ceremonies the Army Ceremonial Band and the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps occupy either side of the parade field. During the Sound Off, the bands march across the field and pass through each other’s ranks. It’s a cool effect. It would be cooler if the Army Band was on horseback and the Fife and Drum Corps was on Camels. Just saying…
What was evident from the start was how excited the Qataris were to be meeting with us. They expressed several times their interest in strengthening and deepening their ties with the U.S. and our military musicians. Ultimately, they would love to bring a band over to the States for a tour. We suggested a good first step would be to send a contingent of officers to the U.S. to get the lay of the land; they loved the idea. We also discussed the possibility of bringing both Army and Air Force musicians to their base to play alongside their musicians, something we have already begun to work on.
As we talked, I was struck, not by our differences, but by our similarities. These men want what is best for their Soldiers. They want to be better and they want to be relevant. Sound familiar? As the five officers in the room spoke of grand plans, the lone noncommissioned officer in the room, Sergeant Ahmed, periodically interjected (in Arabic) his sage advice to his officers. As LT Abdulla translated, I remarked that the role of the NCO is universal – keeping officers out of trouble. We all had a good laugh. I was again reminded how two Americans and four Qataris, bound by the profession of arms and love of music, can bring two nations so different on the surface together, because when you look past the surface, we are quite similar indeed.
The following day, we made a visit to the Qatar Music Academy, an international school providing instruction in both Western and Arab music.
A relatively new institution, the Academy opened in 2011, and has a faculty comprised of musicians from all over the world. Capt. Hansen and I met with their Head of Western Music, Ann-Marie Pigneguy, as well as their band and theory instructor. Located in Doha’s Katara Cultural Village by the sea, it is a wonderful place to study music. Our hope is that we can bring our musicians to the Academy to work with their students and faculty. Things are looking good to do exactly that.
Located near the Academy in the Cultural Village is an amphitheater that reminded me of the Coliseum.
Apparently the opera performs there. I wonder what it would take to have a U.S. band perform there?
Also in the Village is a permanently installed sculpture by Indian artist Subodh Gupta entitled “Gandhi’s Three Monkeys” referring to the three wise monkeys and its message of peace associated with Gandhi. If I had known what I was looking at, I would have taken pictures of all three pieces; here’s the one I did take a picture of:
Here’s another cool sculpture I did take picture of:
After our meeting (and some picture-taking), we went to lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant called Saffron. It was an upscale restaurant with a fantastic menu, the cuisine broken down by the different regions of India. I had chicken mahkni and my colleague had saag paneer. Both were quite tasty.
The next morning, I got up early (as in 1:45 AM) to hitch a ride with the band since they were passing through Kuwait. Overall, it was an enjoyable and productive trip; and I have to give special thanks to Capt. Hansen, TSgt Foster, and the AFCENT Band for their help and hospitality. Hopefully, I’ll get back to Qatar at least one more time before I head home.