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Stress Rx: Med Campus Band Rocks

Tonight’s concert benefits Berklee scholarship fund

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The BU Medical Campus Band: (from left) Michael Andreoli, Anand Devaiah, Jason Kung, Joyce Wang, Tharu, James Reilly, Kelvin Rowe, Kristine Xue, Monica Miller, Rafael Ortega, Fernando Almenas, Alexander Vezeridis, and James Holsapple. Not pictured: Caroline Apovian, Kofi Abbensetts, and Hiran Fernando. Photo courtesy of BUMC Band.

The BU Medical Campus Band: (from left) Michael Andreoli, Anand Devaiah, Jason Kung, Joyce Wang, Tharu, James Reilly, Kelvin Rowe, Kristine Xue, Monica Miller, Rafael Ortega, Fernando Almenas, Alexander Vezeridis, and James Holsapple. Not pictured: Caroline Apovian, Kofi Abbensetts, and Hiran Fernando. Photo courtesy of BUMC Band.

Rafael Ortega is a mean lead guitarist and harmonica player who hails from the Dominican Republic and is happy to jam in any style from soul to rock to jazz to reggae to calypso. His day job demands that he and his band “get down” during the church/brunch/family hours of Sunday mornings, and even then, one of the musicians might be summoned elsewhere by a pager in the middle of, say, “Dirty Water.”

Combining the assorted talents of doctors, nurses, and medical students letting off steam, the Boston University Medical Campus Band can do gyrating justice to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” as well as providing “a great venue for faculty, staff, and students to interact,” says head and neck surgeon—and singer and guitarist—Anand K. Devaiah, a School of Medicine associate professor of otolaryngology.

The BUMC band performs tonight at 8 p.m. at the Berklee College of Music’s Café 939, an all-ages, student-run music venue and coffeehouse showcasing emerging student performers and local Boston artists. Tonight’s performance, which benefits the Berklee scholarship fund, will be the BUMC Band’s third appearance at the Berklee venue.

“Berklee students have reciprocated by giving a concert here at the medical school to benefit one of our causes,” says anesthesiologist Ortega, a MED professor and associate dean of diversity and multicultural affairs. Ortega says the band, which now “lives permanently at the medical school,” accepts any instrument and any person moved to sing. “We’ve had saxophones, violins, Spanish guitar, harmonica, timbales, congas, djembe, and bongos.”

Not only are there no auditions, but band members have been known to call, “C’mon up and join us” to curious passersby who poke their heads into the Medical Campus room where the musicians rehearse. Depending on who shows up that day, the band can segue from blues to heavy metal. “We don’t have a recognizable sound,” says Ortega. “What we lack in musical ability we more than compensate for in mass appeal.”

The ensemble is a hit among colleagues and administrators alike. “The band contributes in a major way to the well-being of our faculty, staff, and students,” says Karen Antman, MED dean and provost of the Medical Campus. “They work long hours, but at the end of the day, full professors, first year medical students, as well as OR and ER staff, share their commitment to a diverse musical repertoire.”

In the video above, Caroline Apovian, a MED associate professor of medicine and pediatrics, belts out “Wild Thing.”

A YouTube search reveals a succession of BUMC band video clips: the sultry blonde in the little black dress crooning “Wild Thing” is Caroline Apovian, a MED professor of medicine and pediatrics and director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Research Center at Boston Medical Center. The man leaning into the mike beside her is Fernando Almenas, a BMC anesthesiology resident. That joyful backup singer along with Apovian on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”? She’s reconstructive surgeon Monica Miller, a MED assistant professor of surgery. And that’s Ortega on guitar.

Born three years ago out of informal gatherings of BUMC musicians, band members rehearse (they prefer amplified music to acoustic) on Sunday mornings in a storage room tucked behind a lecture hall. “It’s an ensemble that’s fairly diverse and ever-changing,” Ortega says. Drawing on their varied ethnicity and ages, the musicians play popular music with influences from around the globe. “We have musicians from Puerto Rico, China, and Armenia.” Other backgrounds represented are Indian, Jamaican, Korean, Sri Lankan, Trinidadian, and Iranian. “We have senior faculty to younger faculty to medical students to staff, with a range of capabilities,” he says.

One virtue of the BUMC Band is its function as an equalizer—a student might be playing the bass line for his professor of surgery. As for, to put it delicately, the reputed outsized egos of people in certain professions, these are preempted by the music, camaraderie, and sheer fun factor. “Surgeons tend to be aggressive, but we have plenty of surgeons in the band so the effect is neutralized,” says Ortega. Although he acknowledges that “ego always plays a role” and some “individuals may feel they’re more talented than others,” he points out that making music “is a laboratory for all of us, to negotiate and make compromises. We must try to keep egos in check.” And for the most part, he says, it works. Flexibility is a requirement too; it’s not uncommon for musicians to be on call during rehearsals.

Guitarist Mike Andreoli (MED’11) and bass player Alex Vezeridis (MED’11) are medical students. “Something I really loved seeing was one day when I was in the OR on my otolaryngology rotation, our guitarist, Dr. Devaiah, and our percussionist, Dr. Hiran “Chrish” Fernando, were at the head of the patient, teaming up on a bronchoscopy,” says Vezeridis. Oddly, the band has a lot of overlapping subspecialty surgeons from otolaryngology, anesthesia, neurosurgery, and thoracic surgery, “so collaboration outside of music practice is quite common,” Vezeridis says. And with all these specialists making music together, the jokes are unavoidable. “When someone can’t keep the beat, we say, take your pulse,” says Ortega. “Or if someone’s too loud, we refer them to the otolaryngologists.”

The band “is therapy,” says Ortega. It has become such a popular diversion that it’s even used as a recruitment tool. “One faculty member chose our institution so he could play drums.”

The Boston University Medical Campus Band performs tonight, May 11, at 8 p.m., at the Berklee College of Music’s Café 939, 939 Boylston St., Boston. General admission is $10; free with Berklee ID. Proceeds benefit the Berklee scholarship fund. More information can be found online.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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