Yokota Band spreads goodwill across Mongolia

  • Published
  • By Maj. Matt Henry
  • USAF Band of the Pacific-Asia
ULAANBATAAR, Mongolia -- As the first U.S. military band to travel to Mongolia, none of us knew quite what to expect. We knew that Mongolia is, per capita, one of the largest supporters to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Mongolia's military was gearing up for its eighth deployment of troops to Iraq. 

Mongolia has been an outstanding partner in the Global War on Terror, generously allowing over-flights as U.S. and coalition forces execute air operations thoughout Iraq and Afghanistan. We now know they are a proud people with a rich and varied history and we have the honor of calling each other friends.

We arrived at Chinggis Khaan International Airport near Ulaanbaatar (UB as the locals call it) June 25 after traveling from Tokyo. We awoke early the next day to travel the five hours from UB to Darkhan. A city of about 100,000, it is the second largest next to UB. 

It is also home of Mongolian Army Unit 330, which was the second reason we'd traveled to Darkhan. 

Upon arrival, I made my way to the local radio station to talk about the free joint concert that we'd be playing at that night with the Central Military Orchestra of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Mongolia and Pacific Brass of the USAF Band of the Pacific. I emphasized that we were there to celebrate 20 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Mongolia and that the concert would celebrate our countries' cooperation and friendship.

The audience at the concert was roughly 400 people. Col Bayarmagai, commander of Unit 330 (and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College) opened the concert speaking about their unit's preparations to deploy in support of OIF and welcoming us as representatives of their "Third Neighbor" (Russia and China being one and two). 

The Mongolian band opened the concert and Pacific Brass opened the second half. We programmed a wide variety of music, from classic to jazz to rock (yes, rock with a Brass Quintet!) and emphasized Americana. We also presented (premiered) an original piece written by music arranger, Staff Sgt. Scott Wise of the USAF Band of the Pacific, based on two traditional Mongolian folk songs. 

It was incredibly well received with the audience who sang along, clapping and crying tears of joy. We concluded our portion with a Medley of Glenn Miller tunes to celebrate the Air Force's 60th anniversary.

We combined forces in the end of the combined concert. The first was a piece that featured trumpet players from both groups, conducted by their conductor, Major Tumurbat and we concluded the concert with Stars and Stripes Forever, which I conducted. After the concert, the local cable access channel interviewed me about the concert and why we were there.

The next day we went to Unit 330 to do a combined performance for the troops and their families. 

This concert was also hosted by Col Bayarmagai and the defense attaché of the U.S. Embassy. We had another great turnout with about 400 people in a stand-only room. 

It also gave us the opportunity to have more personal interaction with our Mongolian counterparts. In spite of a language barrier, we were able to overcome it through the international language of music!

After the concert, we traveled four hours to Erdenet, a city of about 70,000 (Mongolia's third largest) and home of Unit 186. We did two combined performances on June 28; first, for Unit 186 and their families (about 250 - again, standing room only), hosted by Lt. Col. Sukhbatar, acting commander of Unit 186 and second, for the people of Erdenet (about 450) hosted by Governor Gonbald. 

This was again a resounding success with the civilian leadership asking when we'd be back! Messaging remained the same, emphasizing relations, friendship and cooperation between the United States and Mongolia.

After the concert, we hosted the Mongolian Band at our hotel for a reception. This was a highly successful evening of interaction between our two units. I firmly believe this was one of the most successful moments of friendship and relation building of the trip from a military-to-military prospective. The following day we traveled over nine hours back to UB.

We supported the U.S. Embassy's "Fourth of July" celebration for the families of the embassy and locals from the local housing complex (over 500 in attendance) on June 30. This event was hosted by the U.S. Ambassador Mark Minton. 

We performed a very short parade which gave the children an opportunity to march along. After performing both the host nation and U.S. anthems, we did a shortened version of our good will tour program. After a short break, we did a second set of Americana / Fourth of July music. 

Ambassador Minton was thrilled by our support of this event and the reports he'd already received about the success of the tour thus far.

We held another combined concert with our Mongolian Band partners in UB July 1. Though turnout was less than we'd hoped (250), this performance was recorded and re-broadcast in Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, Korean, English and Spanish throughout Mongolia! 

The next day we traveled to the south of UB to Zune Mod for our last concert with our Mongolian friends. More than 300 people attended the concert in one of the smallest communities where we played. Saying goodbye to folks we'd developed good friendships with was bittersweet.

On July 3, we played in downtown UB at the "American Corner." Attendance was fantastic (more than 400) and most who came stayed for awhile (these kind of noon time performances are usually transient audiences). In addition to our regular messaging, we also helped bring awareness to the American culture center and the resources they offer.

We traveled to the International Youth Camp just outside of UB on July 4. We played for and interacted with over 500 very enthusiastic youth. The defense attaché from the U.S. Embassy also attended and was thrilled with the results and the messaging.

We traveled to the summer home for UB's orphanage on July 5. I feel we made a real difference in these 200 children's lives for the time we were there and were able to make a real connection with them in a short time through the emotional impact of music. That same day we were able to support the Embassy's formal Fourth of July event. 

There were over 300 International VIPs in attendance and Ambassador Minton again thanked us for our support and the relationship we'd been able to develop. After this event, we went to the airport to return to our home bases.

This was an incredibly successful and effective trip. We did 11 performances in nine days for almost 4,000 audience members. In addition, our performances were broadcast in Darkhan, Erdenet and UB, making our messaging available to 2.5 million people in Mongolia and five other countries. I believe we've started something big and I look forward to seeing the seeds we sowed as they develop.