AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar –
If you get the opportunity to watch the Air Force Central Command Band in action, you need to do it. Their enthusiasm and passion for music is contagious. A sonic chicken soup washes over the crowd as they play; it flows off the stage and fills the room, curing the sick and wrapping everyone in a warm blanket. The type of music they play doesn’t matter as much as the beat, the rhythm, the sound waves that move through the room and soak into your body, demanding a reaction. For most watching, the band and the music they play personifies goodness. Music just makes you happy.
According to Melinda Doolittle, accomplished vocalist and top finisher on American Idol, “No matter what’s going on, it (music) just kind of suspends everything for a bit of time and brings some joy and levity to the situation and just lets people break out and have a great time.” Doolittle played with the AFCENT Band here at Al Udeid for a May 26th concert and noted about her experience, “The excellence that happens on stage is unparalleled.”
“It’s a highly desired job because people want to serve their country with their unique skills,” said U.S. Air Force Captain Justin Lewis, cellist and Officer in Charge of the U.S. AFCENT Band, when asked about being a band member. There is no technical training school for music in the U.S. Air Force; the musicians are selected through an audition process. According to Lewis, many AFCENT musicians come to the Air Force with masters degrees already in hand.
The transcendent quality of music, coupled with the excellence of the musicians that play it, is a powerful combination. Music has been used by the U.S. Air Force for decades as an effective diplomatic tool.
“Music as a whole provides that soft power, to be able to open doors culturally, especially in support of the United States’ ambassadors and the U.S. Embassies,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Matt Erickson, superintendent, AFCENT Band.
Lewis comes from a family of musicians and can personally attest to the power of music. His father, a trumpeter, and his mother, a vocalist, both served in the Air Force Band for twenty years. Lewis tells the story his mother passed on to him about the Cold War era when foreign ambassadors and their staff would visit the White House. President Ronald Reagan remarked that he observed the hearts of his guests soften after they heard Airmen performing songs from the guests' native lands. Music has the power to soften hearts and to bring people closer together.
“I love music because it’s universal…it just reaches people like nothing else can,” said Doolittle.
According to information from the band’s mission statement, the AFCENT band is the first permanently assigned Air Force Band to the Central Command Area of Responsibility and it is comprised of deployed Active Duty, Reserve, and Air National Guard band members. The band’s mission statement also states that the band performs a, “…wide variety of musical styles to appeal to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.”
In a big way, the AFCENT Band is a part of the U.S. Air Force that can reach into the communities of host nations and, “show them that we are committed to the safety and security of the region,” in the words of Master Sgt. Erickson. In addition to holding concerts, the band provides outreach in other forms including holding workshops and school band sessions at local schools and communities across the AOR.
“We exemplify the excellence that is happening throughout the Air Force,” said Lewis. “The American public and foreign peoples can’t really be up in the tower or with the maintenance crew...but when they see airmen being excellent at music in public, they understand that it symbolizes the excellence that happens across our Air Force.”