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Air Force Band of the West brings musical mission to Puerto Rico

  • Published
  • By By: Airman 1st Class Shelby Pruitt
  • 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The United States Air Force Band of the West brought the joy of live music to the residents of Puerto Rico during a recent weeklong tour of the United States territory still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria nearly two years ago.

In living up to its mission to honor, inspire and connect, the band’s music told the Air Force story of diversity and opportunity, built relationships with Puerto Rican communities and honored veterans from the island.

“After experiencing the largest blackout in Puerto Rico, people started to detach from social media/entertainment through electronic devices and started embracing a more social approach through outdoor activities like live music concerts.” said Staff Sgt. Denise Cardona Santos, Band of the West clarinetist.

The BOTW’s concerts in April gave Puerto Ricans more exposure to the Air Force mission.

“The Air Force has a limited presence in Puerto Rico. The Army and Navy have a much bigger presence in the minds of the Puerto Rican people,” Cardona Santos said. “That is why the Band of the West and Air Force Recruiting Service are uniting forces to bring more Air Force representation to the island.”

“The band also wanted to honor all Puerto Ricans who have served in the U.S. military and those who are currently serving,” said Master Sgt. Amy Cox, NCO in charge of Band of the West Concert Band. “We inspired a sense of patriotism in all who came to hear us.”

The BOTW island tour also coincided with a visit from members of Air Force Recruiting Service headquarters as they visited with local recruiters in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Their commander, Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, along with her command chief, Chief Master Sgt. Sonia Lee, visited the area with local recruiters and also was there to celebrate the opening of a new Air Force Recruiting Office on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix. The first one in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 11 years, since the original office’s closure in 2008.

“An estimated 130,000 people left the island after Hurricane Maria (according to data released by U.S. Census Bureau),” Cardona Santos said. “Puerto Ricans are looking for ways to support their families. That is why this mission was so important. We needed to inform the Puerto Rican people that the Air Force is a great option for employment.”

During their tour, the band performed at seven different schools and theaters in six different cities around the island. They also led a master class for Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico students.

“This was the first time we have ever brought our entire 44-person concert band to Puerto Rico,” said Staff Sgt. Jaime Parker, Band of the West trombonist. “The neat thing is, our concert band can perform on its own or it can break down into multiple smaller ensembles.”

Because of the flexibility and versatility of the band, the BOTW was able to visit remote parts of the island such as Humacao, Aricebo and Cidra, cities that often go unnoticed by visiting bands.

“It was critical that we represented the Air Force in these locations in particular, because they receive even less exposure to the military than more populated areas like San Juan,” Cardona Santos said. “During our small group performance, several parents came to me to thank me not only for visiting their often overlooked school, but also for giving them a different outlook of what the Air Force could mean to their children.”

With the massive group, the BOTW faced unique travel obstacles. Transportation, safety and accountability were among the concerns.

“Moving all our equipment wasn't financially possible,” Cardona Santos said. “Fortunately, our friends from the Army National Guard Band at Fort Buchanan were able to provide most of the equipment we needed to get the mission done. We were extremely grateful for their help.”

To make the trip even more special, the BOTW was able to reach out to the other regional Air Force bands to invite more Puerto Rican musicians to join.

“The role these folks played, as ambassadors, was priceless,” Parker said. “They represented the Air Force admirably with their impeccable communication skills speaking Spanish to audiences during concerts. They were able to educate our own band members to help us better understand their culture, helping us establish a bond and begin to build lasting relationships with the people of Puerto Rico.”

Each band member had a different experience while in Puerto Rico, but for the BOTW’s Puerto Rican natives, the tour was extremely significant. 

“This trip was a dream come true for me because it was the first time my family has seen me in blues and performing with the Air Force band,” Cardona Santos said. “It was heartwarming to see how impressed my wingmen were with the resiliency, hospitality and the natural musical talent of Puerto Rico and our people.”

Parker marveled at audience’s reaction during the shows.

“Their positive energy was infectious,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling to be on stage and get a huge reaction from the crowd, because when that happens, you know you’re really connecting with them, which is exactly what we came to Puerto Rico to do.”

On the final day of the tour, the CMPR students and the BOTW combined to perform to showcase what they learned at the master class.

“It is always a treat to perform with young people. They are like sponges, soaking up every story and suggestion you have in their quest to become a professional musician,” Cox said. “I think it was wonderful for them to see alumni from their school that have worked hard and achieved their goals of becoming a professional musician and an ambassador for Puerto Rico.”

Víctor Alexis Arzola Reyes, a CMPR percussion student, explained some of what he learned from the master class. 

“I had the opportunity to meet Freddie Miranda Jr., an excellent percussionist and CMPR alumnus, who showed us how the work of a percussionist is done in the BOTW, which helped me learn a little about the style of percussion in military march music,” he said.

Cardona Santos, who is also a CMPR alumnus, was deeply affected by the visit.

“I was extremely proud of the conservatory students,” she said. “Seeing all the Puerto Rican music students represent the amazing caliber of our local educators was extremely heartwarming.”

The students and BOTW musicians were able to share a bond over the mutual love for music, bridging the gap between military member and civilian.

“For me, it was an honor to play with those who serve our country,” said Juan León Rivera, clarinetist and CMPR student. “I learned that just because a person in uniform sits beside you doesn't mean they are any less human. Instead, the Band of the West are amazing people with big hearts and a passion for music just like us.”

Also attending the final performance was Leavitt and her AFRS team.

“The band has such a powerful impact because they are able to engage with the communities and teach them about the Air Force and all the incredible opportunities that are available,” Leavitt said.

Not only did the BOTW have the opportunity to learn about and enjoy Puerto Rico, they were able to connect with the people on a deep, musical level and showcase the diverse opportunities the Air Force has to offer.

“I think they really enjoyed the music,” Parker said. “But more importantly, I think they came away from these events with a better understanding and appreciation of the role the Air Force plays in defending our nation and reminded them that the Air Force has some incredible opportunities for Puerto Rican men and women to become Airmen and serve their country. “

Additional photos of the tour can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jbsapublicaffairs/albums/with/72157708079477684.