USAFE Band unites U.S., Ukrainian armed forces through music

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Sarah Johnson
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

KYIV, Ukraine — The U.S. Air Forces in Europe Ambassadors Jazz Band traveled to six cities in central and western Ukraine October 6 - 20, 2019, to conduct the “Music of Freedom” tour, a community outreach and concert program aimed at celebrating the shared spirit of freedom and enduring partnership between U.S. and Ukrainian armed forces.

At the invitation of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, the 15-member team hosted master classes for local music students, jam sessions in the community, and concerts in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, Vinnytsia, Desna Military Training Centre, and Kyiv.

“The main purpose of our tour is to honor the military tradition of both countries as we celebrate the independence of the Ukrainian people through music,” said Lt. Col. Cristina Moore Urrutia, USAFE Band commander and conductor. “(The band’s presence here) reinforces our nation’s commitment to this relationship… that we value our ability to stand together side by side as any challenge comes.”

Although the band has conducted similar programs in Ukraine in 2017 and 2018, this year’s tour undertook new initiatives to convey the strength of the relationship between the two countries, especially their shared respect for those who have fought and are fighting to preserve freedom. Ukraine’s National Presidential Orchestra joined the USAFE Band for the entire tour, and they combined their unique styles to perform new twists on meaningful military songs.

“The songs that we’re playing are songs that are instilled in the hearts of the Ukrainian people… it’s the way we bring our two worlds together,” said Staff Sgt. Nick DelVillano, USAFE Band trumpeter. “(Many of) the pieces we are playing are originally Ukrainian military songs, and we’ve put a spin on them and turned them into jazz arrangements. It’s really amazing because we go to different countries and we play their music, but we very rarely put an American jazz spin on the pieces we play… this is a chance for us to combine two cultures, and the effect is extremely powerful.”

For the National Presidential Orchestra, playing Ukrainian songs with Americans was a symbol of the relationship between the two countries.

“(Performing together) is a big responsibility, because the USAFE Band is a representation of such a large nation,” said Irina Kulik, National Presidential Orchestra vocalist. “Understanding that such a big nation is helping us in this tough situation gives us the desire to make it the very best… I really like the professional quality of all the USAFE Band musicians, as well as their communication, their openness, and their kindness.” [translation from Ukrainian]

Together, the combined group met standing ovations and calls for encores in every venue as they performed a program dedicated to the proud history of U.S. and Ukrainian armed forces. As a symbol of partnership, the band chose signature songs of service from both countries - from World War II-era American favorites by Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley to poignant Ukrainian tributes like “Zaporizhian March” and “We Go Forward.” Each song aimed to convey the continual quest for freedom.

“Music is one of those expressions of the soul that crosses all kinds of boundaries,” said Moore Urrutia. “I think for me, music of freedom is about expressing the heart of a people where they have been oppressed, or they have dealt with struggle, and they’ve been able to express that through music. Being able to come to a place like Ukraine where struggle continues, and (playing) some of the music that is near and dear to their heart… that’s a way of expressing our common bond with one another.”

Emotion in the audience was palpable as concertgoers stood and sang along to songs of struggle and triumph; songs that honored the efforts of their military to ensure a Europe that is whole, free, prosperous and at peace. The songs’ meanings were reinforced on Defender of Ukraine Day, a local annual holiday on October 14 that pays tribute to those who have fought and continue to fight for the state sovereignty of Ukraine.

“(It was) so poignant to them that we were playing and singing a song from their military heritage, wearing this uniform, to show them the partnership that we have between the United States and Ukraine,” said Master Sgt. John Dawson, USAFE Band tenor saxophonist and non-commissioned officer in charge. “The privilege of being a part of that and creating that moment between us and the audience… was something that I’ll treasure forever. We’ve been planning and working on it for months, and I’ve been imagining it in my mind, and it couldn’t have come out any better than it did with them standing and singing along with us.”

In some cities, additional Ukrainian musicians joined the ensemble. A string orchestra from the Lviv Opera Chamber Orchestra performed the Lviv engagements, and Ukrainian singer and Eastern Flank military veteran Anastasia Shevchenko as well as the National Philharmonic Orchestra joined culminating engagements in the country’s capital city, Kyiv.

“It’s not about what you’re thinking, it’s about what you’re feeling,” said Kulik. “There is an exchange of very powerful emotions that happens (in a performance). It empties you because it drains you of all your emotions, but at the same time it also fills you up and inspires you to continue; inspires you to keep working.” [translation from Ukrainian]

Building on the message from the last five venues, the Kyiv concert underscored U.S. support to Ukrainian democracy, prosperity, and security. Acting Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine Joseph Pennington reinforced this message in his remarks at the USAFE Kyiv concert.  Pennington also presided over the presentation of a certificate for excellence in cultural diplomacy and partnership on behalf of the USAFE Band to the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, which was represented at the concert by Deputy Minister Iryna Podolyak.

The “Music of Freedom” tour represents a fraction of about 400 concerts the USAFE Band performs annually throughout Europe and Africa. Beyond their musical and performance skills, they serve as a diplomacy tool for the theater - entering areas important to U.S. and NATO interests to support and reinforce military efforts.

“Each location that we go, our presence is a response of our nation to say ‘we are standing with you,’ that our friendship matters, (that we share) a common bond of longing for freedom and the importance of each nation to be able to determine its own way ahead,” said Moore Urrutia.

Engaging on a people-to-people level achievable through the U.S. military’s ‘soft power’ capabilities, the band helps strengthen diplomatic relations and promote future engagements with partners such as Ukraine. They pride themselves on being not only musicians, but music ambassadors, believing music is an integral form of communication that helps bridge cultures and increase long-lasting trust and respect between peoples.

This purpose, higher even than musical prowess, was at the forefront of each encounter in Ukraine.

“I really hope the people of Ukraine will sense the solidarity that the United States has with them,” said Moore Urrutia. “As members of the U.S. military… of course we represent the Air Force, but oftentimes we’re representing our nation. It’s an opportunity for us to show each different country how much we value the relationship we have with them. That’s what I would want the people of Ukraine to take away - that they know and understand and feel, in a way that is visceral and emotional; in a way that remains long after we depart; that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.”