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Facing the Music in Afghanistan

Grad student Russell Houser’s mission is melodic

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Russell Houser (CFA’12) speaks about making music in Afghanistan, where he is stationed as the Army bandmaster for the 82nd Airborne Division Band.

Like many students, Russell Houser’s days are packed. From the predawn hours to late at night, he juggles studies, a full-time job, and his personal life, often falling into bed exhausted at day’s end.

Sound familiar? Maybe, but Houser’s situation is unique.

Houser (CFA’12), the Army bandmaster for the 82nd Airborne Division Band, is currently based in Afghanistan. He was deployed in April, the same week he was accepted into the doctorate of musical arts in music education program, which he now pursues online.

Following in the footsteps of his older brother, 40-year-old Houser joined the military in 1987 after seeing an Army band perform at his high school. He recently signed a 6-year commitment extending his service past the 20-year retirement mark. “That six-year period ends, ironically, about the time that the Maya calendar says that the world’s going to end, around 2012,” says the second-year chief warrant officer with a laugh. “I’ll have one day of retirement.”

Houser is one of a few active-duty soldiers studying in an online program at Boston University, according to Elizabeth Curran, senior student services coordinator for distance education. His yearlong mission in Afghanistan is twofold. As a company commander, he is responsible for his band and the welfare of his soldiers; as a conductor, he develops senior leadership of the division’s bands. The bands comprise four main groups: a 20-piece ceremonial band, a brass quintet, a rock band, and a multifunctional jazz, Dixie, and country band.

His team is in the “formative stages,” Houser says, of developing a monthly program to train the Afghan National Army Band in Western-style music, on Western instruments. “It’s taken us a while to find the right people to talk to,” he says. “Sometimes that’s half the game over here.”

In exchange, he expects his soldiers to learn and understand some of the local Afghan-style music. “I think that will really help communication across the different cultures,” he says.

Music may be a universal language, but Houser and his soldiers are finding out that Afghan music is considered microtonal, exploring notes between Western pitches. Local performers rely on memory, not sheet music, when performing.

As a doctoral student, Houser is interested in how Afghan musicians communicate. For example, he’s noted how players of the tabla (a pair of drums) will cue other band members by whacking the drum twice before each shift in musical style.

“Those musical cues, those personal cues, those are what I’m interested in learning,” he says. He compares the tabla double strike to the double bar used in Western musical scores. “Trying to make those connections to teach myself and to teach my musicians,” he adds, “that’s important.”

Houser also enjoys seeing Afghan musicians mix and match their tabla drum sets. “It’s kind of Tupperware-like,” he says. “You can take a whole set of 12 and only put 2 out there.” He describes one distinctive sound of the tabla, a po-OM reverberation, as “really kind of a happy, almost comical sound.”

Then there’s the rabab, a mandolin-like instrument with three pitched strings, plucked rapidly, and 13 sympathetic vibrating strings. The rabab and tabla alone, Houser says, can put on a show.

Band members go through basic training like all other Army soldiers, Houser explains. Once past that milestone, they complete 24 weeks of military musical training and study marching style and band structure.

Once deployed, theirs is a musical mission — they don’t go on patrols. Band members practice for a two-hour block of time each day in soundproof rooms, Houser explains. When on mission, they pack up their gear and rumble across the countryside, performing to boost morale at holiday events or to entertain dignitaries. He says soldiers often request songs that pay tribute to their home states; Sweet Home Alabama, Georgia on My Mind, and “anything from Texas” are favorites. One band even fielded a request for the theme song to Gilligan’s Island.

Playing music in an arid, dusty land adds an extra challenge. Houser says the group stocks canned air and regularly rinses grime from brass instruments.

Still in the first year of his doctoral program, the French horn player from Pennsylvania plans to use his BU degree to teach other conductors the art of swinging a baton. He has yet to define his specific focus.

Finding a time and place to study would seem like an extra headache, but Houser has nothing but praise for the program and the quality of instruction from his BU professors. Everything he needs — class lectures, homework, and discussion groups — is available online. Curran also helps, telling him when books are available to order and guiding him to BU’s online resources.

From orientation to finals, Houser will complete his degree entirely online. The only time he will have to visit campus is for his residency week, Curran says, when he meets with his advisor to decide on a dissertation topic.

In Afghanistan, Houser listens to jets soar above him as he makes a late-night call to BU. His online studies are a lifeline. “It really does help me to keep my sanity,” he says.

Rusty SoldierArmy Strong

Listen to a recording of the Army’s theme music, Army Strong, performed by Houser and his band in Afghanistan last week.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu

6 Comments

6 Comments on Facing the Music in Afghanistan

  • Anonymous on 11.24.2009 at 9:40 pm

    Band master

    I was in the Army band and enjoyed the article. The only jar I had was this line: “You can take a whole set of 12 and only put 2 out there.” People do not talk in numbers. They talk in words. It should be “You can take a whole set of twleve and only put two out there.”

  • Anonymous on 11.30.2009 at 3:07 pm

    Swing

    I wonder if Afgani musicians swing as a distinct style.

  • Musical Instruments Brass on 12.09.2009 at 3:32 pm

    Bravo!

    Russell Houser is clearly an intelligent man and I admire him for what he is doing… esp. using music to help communication across the different cultures. Bravo!

    I think it is awesome that he is expecting his soldiers to learn and understand some of the local Afghan-style music. I personally find microtonal music fascinating and a delight to listen to.

    I’m also impressed that Houser is interested in learning how Afghan musicians communicate. Being a musician myself, I too find this phenomenon interesting to learn about.

    I’d like to find out more about Houser’s progress with the 82nd Airborne Division Band in Afghanistan.

    Musical Instruments Brass

  • Anonymous on 12.09.2009 at 9:07 pm

    who cares how he chooses to communicate. Get a grip!

  • wamelpaso on 12.21.2009 at 11:32 am

    I know Russ and he is an awesome person and musician. His musicians are absolutely great! We love you Russ. Be Safe.

  • Ed Michaud on 12.28.2011 at 10:46 pm

    Russell is stand up. I enjoyed taking stats class with you! ~Ed.

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