In May 2012, I graduated with a major in music composition. Two months later I was on a plane to Moshi, Tanzania, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, to assist the music program at the International School Moshi, which houses grades K-12. I’ll always remember my first hours in Tanzania, the sweet smell of the air, the brightly colored flowers, the dust-cyclones in the distance, and my first glimpse through the clouds of Kilimanjaro’s summit.
In my time here I’ve learned the essentials of daily life; to wash the thick layer of dust and dirt off my feet before bed and to know that there is always a fundi, or handyman, to fix anything, whether it’s a car, a cell phone, or a pair of pants.
As a composition major at Denison, I took one-on-one composition lessons with Ching-chu Hu, associate professor of music. One of the last topics we studied was the intricacy of modern pop songs. So, six weeks into my time in Tanzania, I wrote my first pop song and arranged to record ISM’s children’s choir singing the chorus.
I vividly remember an afternoon early in the year, after choir practice let out. As the choir’s piano accompanist, I was fiddling around on the piano. On a whim, I played the opening chords to “Lean on Me,” by Bill Withers. Almost immediately, a group of about six or seven students gathered around the piano and sang with beautiful improvised harmony. I was impressed, and I resolved to bring together the songs I had been writing with the talent of the students by recording a full-length music album.
Over the course of the next seven months, I wrote pop songs inspired directly from my experiences in Moshi and formed an after-school club devoted to recording the students singing the tracks. The inspirations for the songs included the challenges and joys of daily life to the stunning landscapes and nature. One track, “Moonlight on the Mountain,” was inspired from the breathtaking view of a full moon reflecting off the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro, lighting up the night. Another track, “Lovin’ the Light,” was written during one of Moshi’s all-too-frequent power outages:
I’m lovin’ the light
’cause I see clearly
in a world with so much love
and so much beauty.
I’m lovin’ the light
’cause it’s so easy
to feel the joy of all
that is within me.
The experience recording with the students was extremely rewarding, and I recognize how privileged I am as a composer to have a choir of talented young men and women to support me. Having seen (and heard) the potential, I hope to end my time here in Moshi, Tanzania, having left a long-lasting mark. The proceeds made from the album, Smooth Livin’ (named for the way life feels here in Tanzania), will determine a budget for the final quarter’s project: I will be working with students to transform an abandoned practice room into a soundproof recording room.
Smooth Livin’, which Ebsary created with students from the International School Moshi, is available online and on iTunes.