A Cappella Group Makes Musical Friends in Kenya
The seed for the idea of a trip to Kenya was planted more than 7 years ago for the 2018 University of Rochester YellowJackets, before any of the a cappella group’s current members were even in college. The 2011 YellowJackets had traveled there as part of a cultural exchange to collaborate on music projects, and the current members wanted to walk in their footsteps and continue the relationships the group had built with a performance trip that also incorporated service to the community. “There are a lot of groups that go to Europe,” Philip Milman, Music Director of the YellowJackets explained. “But the YellowJackets have such a strong connection to Africa because of the experience the first group had.”
They turned to WorldStrides OnStage to help them build a customized International Concert Tour itinerary that re-traced some of the steps of the previous group, and added new stops for even more performances in even more communities. It was an “outside-the-box” program, combining some specific requests based on the previous group’s itinerary with the current group’s desire to see and sing with as many students as possible. They also worked with Joining Hearts and Hands in Rochester to connect with schools make the trip possible.
The students found incredible hospitality from the Kenyan people.The YellowJackets hit the road in June and traveled from Nairobi to the port city of Kisumu, with stops in the rural communities of Maseno and Butere. In total, they visited six schools and three orphanages, and held three public performances as well. They were even featured on Kenyan national TV! Each stop was packed with opportunities to sing and play with young people. Though the extreme poverty they witnessed in some locations was difficult to see, Milman says he believes everyone in the group walked away with some new perspective. “Wherever you go in the world, kids will always be kids,” he reflected.
They were particularly touched by the tremendous hospitality they experienced everywhere they went, and in particular by the effort the schools they visited made to make them feel at home. In one instance in Nairobi, he remembered, the students in every classroom had prepared a special song for them, and then sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” together in the courtyard. Though some of the YellowJackets were uncomfortable at first because they didn’t want the school to feel like they had to impress them, they quickly learned that this display of kindness was important in Kenyan culture. The YellowJackets began learning traditional Kenyan songs – practicing on the long bus rides between visits with the help of their tour guide (who they later inducted into the YellowJackets!). “A lot of the schools had the same traditional songs, so by the middle of the trip, we were able to pick up the songs and perform them with them,” Milman said.
Those Kenyan songs weren’t the only reminder of the universality of the language of music. “The Yellowjackets have a really wide range of songs we perform. Every time we sang “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, or “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake, everyone in the audience would recognize the tune, and sing them with us,” Milman chuckled.
“Everything that we had planned went either just as well as we had hoped, or even better,” he reflected. “We’re just a bunch of college kids who really want to go to share about music education. That’s what’s really important to us. It doesn’t have to be singing, but if you have the desire to take your passion and share it with others, than anything is really possible.”