Music paves teacher's path from Chicago to Sasebo
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — It’s a long way from the unforgiving, rugged streets of Chicago’s west side to a classroom full of cherubic fifth-graders in comparatively pastoral Sasebo.
It’s just as far from raw gospel hymns banged out on old pianos and belted out by the likes of the Rev. James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson, to the electronic New Age and contemporary Christian keyboard compositions of George Winston, as well as the ethereal melodies of Enya.
Both journeys belong to 40-year-old composer/musician Stephan Duster, who doubles as a fifth-grade teacher at Jack N. Darby Elementary School in Sasebo Naval Base’s Hario Housing Village.
His instrument of choice is the grand piano, but he uses a variety of tools such as computers, software, sequencers, keyboards, synthesizers and other professional musicians to produce his sounds. His smooth and mellow style evolved through the years, although gospel remains an influence in both his themes and playing.
“My music is influenced by many things in my life, but when people ask me, I tell them I believe I can do what I do because of talent I was blessed with from God,” he said.
“But my music is definitely similar to contemporary composers like that of George Winston and Enya with a gospel and classical structure, and I play for secular and Christian audiences,” Duster said, while getting his students ready to leave school recently. Winston is a well-known New Age solo pianist and composer.
Duster moved to Sasebo last year from Tacoma, Wash., where he taught at Remann Hall, a school for juvenile delinquents who had been locked up, or were about to be. The easygoing former U.S. Army soldier showed his rough and tumble students how to play piano and guitar and build computers.
“The school was designed to be an alternative to locking them up,” Duster said. “What I did was set up an academic program so they would develop their basic skills and work on learning a hobby, mainly in music and computers. They’d build the computers, then learn music skills using software on those computers.”
He said some students excelled at Remann Hall, while others didn’t..
“But in the whole time I was there, compared to some of the other staff members, there was never a fight that broke out,” Duster said. “I was never threatened outside the building like some had predicted I might be. They even took the security guard away, but I managed to keep a cool atmosphere.”
Cool. Laid back. Mild-mannered. Duster exhibits all those qualities, and speaks with an unshakeable yet breezy, jazzy rhythm.
He and his wife, Liza, who works at Sasebo’s child development center, first lived off base in a Japanese-style house but recently moved to the Hario facility.
In a front tatami room complete with shoji doors, Duster maintained his recording studio chock full of keyboard systems, guitars, other recording paraphernalia and a computer system he built for creating original musical arrangements. He also burns his own CDs. It’s his room, the place he finds solace in what he enjoys most.
In the studio, there’s also a well-worn copy of the Bible, King James version.
“My grandfather was a minister in a local Baptist church,” he recalled. “And as long as I can remember, I was involved with church, and I’m still that way.
“The Vice Lords and other gangs ragged on young black kids like me who wouldn’t join the gangs. A kid like me … just trying to go to and from school and church … I felt like a salmon trying to go upstream. There was a lot of aggression against me. I was harassed all the time.”
But he persevered, enduring threats and mockery.
“Back then, I had basically three choices,” Duster added. “I could work, go to school or go to church, and if there was a church meeting, in my family, it was like, ‘You better get your homework done, because you’re going to church.’
“But given the environment I was in, if it wasn’t that way, then I would’ve gotten into some kind of trouble. At the high school I was in, and the area I lived, all black males were pretty much forced into the gang system.”
He found comfort in the music of the church, and was inspired to reach beyond gospel early on by listening to Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”
“One time that really inspired me is when I heard him perform without his band. It was nothing but him. The guy’s fantastic,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to spend too much time in a room alone with him, because he’s way out there, man. But on the other hand, musically, he’s one of the best.”
In 1983, Sgt. Duster played piano in Korea’s DMZ and in the Philippines. He constantly improved his keyboard skills. “It was either that or hum along with the Communist Chinese loudspeaker music with its bloody propagandized lyrics. I wasn’t really good at chasing women around, so I was always playin’ and prayin’, playin’ and prayin’.”
He settled in Puget Sound after leaving the Army because “it was the first place I’d seen in the States where I saw a natural effort by people of different races trying to get along, and I liked the area.”
He enrolled at Pacific Lutheran University in the late 1980s and with student loans was able to graduate with a business degree in 1990.
“I knew I’d need the business degree because of the difficulty everyone has making a living as a musician, although that’s where my heart’s always been,” he said. He also sang in two university choirs, and he developed further electronic music skills in PLU classes.
“We had to write our own music, but also learn how to play it electronically and make tapes and CDs. We learned mixing and all phases of music production, which is what I do now when I’m not teaching.”
On a windowsill, a portable stereo system liltingly plays one of Duster’s latest CDs, “O Magnum Mysterium.” It includes Duster’s arrangements of holiday favorites and his keyboard work, joined on harp by friend Jessica Hannula.
His CD compilations include patriotic and gospel tunes with a decidedly Duster electronic bent on “God Bless America,” original music with a romantic theme on “Celebration of Love,” which is dedicated to his wife, Christian themes on “The Wedding Feast,” and a compilation of original music titled, “The Writing on the Wall.”
“Generally, I sell most of my CDs at my performances,” he said. “Back in the States, I averaged between 30 to 50 performances a year, and most of those concerts are performed outdoors during the spring and summer months.”
Since April 1998, Duster has sold more than 6,000 CDs and tapes. “If people are interested, I’m available here in the Pacific to perform outdoors or indoors.”