From Morocco to Ukraine, Air Force band builds bonds through music
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 7, 2018
MARRAKECH, Morocco — Several minutes into the band’s first song, a few teenagers tap their feet, sway in their seats and sing along.
Many more slouch or cross their arms, appearing uninterested or unconvinced that the uniformed military musicians on the stage at The American School of Marrakech are worth their time. Unfazed, the band presses on with a playlist of American modern pop songs.
The U.S. Air Force’s in Europe rock ensemble, “Touch ‘n Go,” works its magic. Before long, the kids are out of their seats, showing off their dance moves, giggling, clapping and jumping into a conga line.
When the band concludes with a rocking rendition of “Uptown Funk,” the students plead, “One more song.” The band complies with Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
Afterwards, Abla Doumou, 17, a senior at the international school, where a majority of the 400 students are Moroccan, gushed about the performance.
“I thought it was amazing,” she said. “It was very fun. It just lifted the whole school spirit.”
The musically inclined airmen who rocked Doumou’s school are members of the larger USAFE band. They were in Morocco late last month to support several Defense Department engagements in the northern African country.
The school was among a busy slate of appearances the group made. They also played for African air chiefs at a dinner social and performed for international audiences at the Marrakech Air Show.
Equipped with a keyboard, electric guitars, drums, and vocals that could go far on "American Idol," the band while in Morocco had the dual mission of entertaining and strengthening relationships with allies.
Where the U.S. Air Force ventures, so too does the band.
These days, that means a lot of concerts in Eastern Europe and Africa, the two areas of strategic focus for the band’s command, U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa.
“Overall, our mission is just the soft power,” said Senior Airman Sierra Bailey, 28, a vocalist. “We perform music that everybody knows, no matter where you are from in the world. We’re able to use that to connect with everybody.”
Last year, the band racked up 364 performances in 29 countries. Highlights included troop morale missions in Niger and performing with the Ukrainian military band during the country’s internationally broadcast Independence Day celebration, according to a band statement.
For its work, the USAFE band earlier this year announced it received a top-level Air Force public affairs award, the first time a band received such an honor.
“Our mission in a nutshell is to honor, inspire and connect,” said Senior Airman Bryan Smith, 38, a percussionist.
In recent years, the Pentagon has eyed cuts to military bands as its looks for ways to pay for weapons systems. In 2016, there were more than 130 military bands worldwide comprised of about 6,500 musicians, according to The New York Times.
But the USAFE band, with 47 members, isn’t expecting any drawdowns in personnel, said Staff Sgt. Justin Cockerham, a keyboardist, vocalist and the band’s musical director.
Overseas bands, he said, tend to have priority for manning given their strategic missions.
One of Cockerham’s most memorable experiences with the band occurred over a piano at a hotel in Kyrgyzstan with a Soviet expatriate who didn’t speak English.
The two gave an impromptu concert for hotel guests and with the help of a translator, talked for hours about jazz, something the musician could not study in the former Soviet Union because it represented American freedom, he told Cockerham.
“Those kind of relationships, they get lost in the organizational hubbub when nations talk to each other,” Cockerham said. “But that’s really one of our targets, forming those … people-to-people relationships, absent of politics.”