Chicago Staff Band Ensemble Supports the
Celebration of the Nigerian Centenary Congress
In the face of an ongoing world pandemic, it would seem impossible that a contingent of twelve Chicago Staff Band members could travel to Nigeria for that territory’s Centenary Congress in August of 2021. Prevailing travel and health restrictions, which in this case required a strict masking mandate, Covid tests, and a seven-day quarantine on arrival, seemed prohibitive. Only 3% of Nigeria has received any vaccinations, yet encouragingly the country has the lowest rate of Covid in Africa. Security questions arose, especially as we initially considered utilizing the entire Chicago Staff Band at the event’s originally scheduled date in September of 2020. Upon arrival, however, our smaller contingent was guided by a security detail assigned to escort us at all times. This proved especially useful in getting through the traffic of a city of 22 million and throughout the long days at the Congress arena. Also pressing were the escalating costs for travel, housing, and meals with the required extended quarantine stay during these days of financial restraint in our own country.
There seemed to be too many obstacles that would be impossible to overcome, but God’s glory shines brightest in the midst of the seemingly impossible.
With the resourceful and resilient support of leadership from both the US Central and Nigeria Territories, travel was organized and led by Jude St-Aime, with support at home from the CSB travel coordinator Major Jolene Hull. Our group represented only the second time a staff band has traveled to Africa. Led by Staff Bandmaster Harold Burgmayer, the CSB ten-piece ensemble included: Marc Smith (Eb soprano and Bb cornet); Isaac Leka (flugelhorn and cornet); Rachel Jordan (cornet); Laura Aukes (horn); Abraham Leka (baritone); Tom Hanton (trombone); Nathan Hellstrom (euphonium); Jon Weller (Eb Bass); Jude St-Aimé (Bb Bass); Sam Leka (drums); and supported by Miriam Leka. The team bonded together through daily devotions, rehearsals, and the many miles and meals spent together. The diversity and life experience of this mission team served us well in the inevitable day-to-day challenges.
Monday and Tuesday, August 23 & 24 - Working with the Nigeria Territorial Band
Following the seven-day quarantine and required testing, we were delighted to engage in two days of rehearsal with the Nigeria Territorial Band in preparation for a Wednesday night pre-Congress concert and then for the three full days of the Congress weekend. A highlight for our band members was leading sectional rehearsals, creating marvelous opportunities for ongoing interaction and coaching throughout the week. These sessions resulted in improved teamwork within the sections and many budding friendships accentuated with lively conversations. With so many corps music leaders in both our groups, I took advantage of the opportunity to teach about rehearsal strategy explaining why I stopped or asked questions the way I did. Nigerians sought us out and genuinely wanted to know us, so the connections felt warm and personal.
Tuesday evening was given to a Welcome Meeting for the CSB Ensemble in the brand new Igbobi Corps Chapel, which can seat up to 500 in its spacious balcony under normal circumstances. In response to magnanimous words of welcome from the Congress planners, the territorial leaders, as well as the offerings from the Nigeria Territorial Band and Songsters, the Chicago Staff Band members honored retired Nigerian music leaders and territorial leadership, including our host, Territorial Music Coordinator James Abakada and Territorial Bandmaster Joe Akpan with cards and gift CDs. Nigerian Territorial Songster members appreciably received CSB pins, while Nigerian Territorial Band members gathered with their CSB section leaders for prayer. Each Nigerian bandsman received a gift package with a CSB CD, pin, and socks, which they proudly wore during Congress. Included in each envelope was a hand-written note of encouragement from individual representative members of the full CSB addressed to Nigerian band members who play corresponding parts. Bandmaster Burgmayer shared a prayer and scripture with each territorial section as an act of consecration. In addition to a complete set of tune books, several music stands, ten of the instruments being used by the CSB members, including a drum set, were designated to be donated for use by the Nigeria Territorial Band. Territorial Commander Colonel Victor Leslie closed the meeting with words of gratitude and a prayer for the Centenary Congress.
Wednesday, August 25 – Music Concert
Wednesday was spent traveling and preparing for the evening concert at Terra Kulture on Victoria Island in Lagos. The program featured the Nigeria Territorial Band, supported by the CSB ensemble members, playing Celebration Overture (Cordner), Where Duty Calls (Jakeway), They Shall Come from the East (Larsson), and the William Tell Overture (Rossini). We delighted in the robust singing of the Nigeria Territorial Songsters in God Will Give You Glory (Redhead) and a demanding arrangement of a traditional Yoruba song. The Lagos Divisional Timbrelists provided two timbrel drills, giving fluid movement to Carindale 2010 (Creamer) and Norwich Citadel (Drury). A dance team known as Boundless Expressions combined recorded spoken word and song (which included a musical quote of the Hallelujah Choruses setting of Storm the Forts of Darkness) into a collage of traditional and hip-hop dance. To top it off, we heard an astounding rendition of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and the William Tell Overture performed on a solo harmonica.
The CSB ten-piece ensemble performed an exciting mix of upbeat selections, touching various ethnic expressions, including the Cuban Malaguena (Lecouna) and the big band standard Gospel John (Steinberg), featuring Marc Smith on cornet and Tom Hanton on trombone. Isaac Leka was featured with a relaxed jazz tone on flugelhorn with So Glad (Himes). Isaac was returning to his former home of Lagos, Nigeria, after more than a decade of living in the States. Bandmaster Harold Burgmayer, with the supportive help of Abraham Leka, had prepared a “surprise gift” in a lively arrangement of six Nigerian Christian Songs, entitled Songs of Naija, which met with thunderous approval, resulting in two encores to which the Nigerians enthusiastically sang along. The first was the lively Dixieland setting of Sing, Saints, Swing (Burgmayer) and the Caribbean-flavored Cast Your Burdens (Himes), both enhanced by the Nigerians’ fluid dancing.
Final Preparations for the Congress – Thursday, August 26
Most of the day on Thursday was given to much-needed rest before having a rehearsal to finish preparation for the Congress meetings. Some members of the Nigeria Territorial Band and Songsters traveled as many as 12 hours to gather. Except for a day of zonal songster rehearsals, they had not met since the pre-pandemic visit Jude St-Aimé and I had made in late February 2020. Day by day, we witnessed marked improvement, especially in the quality of sound, blend, and dynamic range. As we would experience during the Congress, Nigerian band members play “full-out” when they improvise choruses, particularly on the march, seemingly without tiring. As the week went by, the group shifted easily to a very pleasing sound at a soft dynamic when playing hymn tunes.
A March of Witness and the Congress Begins – Friday, August 27
Early Friday morning, we joined hundreds of fully uniformed Salvationists in hats and caps headed into a nearby soccer stadium. It was surprising for us to see nearly all in full blue Salvation Army uniforms, which they typically wear during the “rainy season” months. A parade was organized around the track, with a color guard of various SA and national flags, followed by the Nigerian Territorial Band and Songsters, the cadets, and then each divisional contingent “taking the salute.”
For close to an hour, each division passed in review with a flag bearer, then divisional leaders, then those dressed in cultural outfits, followed by smartly dressed soldiers in their “rainy season” blue tunics. Each divisional contingent marched in rows of two because of Covid restrictions, so the lineup seemed unending, reaching nearly twice the length of the track. Nigerians enjoy marching and do so effortlessly, using a unique heel-toe movement with a lift and aggressively swinging arm motion that looks very sharp.
Without the aid of tune books, the bands played SA songs such as Onward Christian Soldiers, Anything for Jesus, I’m A Soldier, and Fill the World; spirituals including He’s Got the Whole World, and I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, occasionally inserting other Nigerian Christian songs. The marching tunes would happen in quick succession, building on one another, usually with cornets commencing a new song harmonizing in triads and the lower brass responding with the same tune in their octave, occasionally with the full band coming together.
From where I was at the front of the band, it was quite impressive to hear some of the unique flourishes and harmonies, with excellent bass lines being played behind me. The percussion battery was unyielding, keeping a strong, steady pace, shifting easily between marching cadences and more traditional African beats.
The march didn’t end within the stadium, as we squeezed our way out of the exits and along the road. After playing for the entrance of the territorial leaders, we processed single file into the room with tunes continued uninterrupted as the band moved to their seats on stage. As would happen throughout the weekend, the enthusiastic arena-filled crowd clapped, sang, and danced along. Various cultural expressions ensued as the meeting moved into full swing, including a depiction of the start of the Salvation Army in Nigeria, staged by the current cadets. The Nigerian National Anthem was followed by the singing of the SA “anthem” O Boundless Salvation, and verses of Joy in The Salvation Army. Two guest speakers with SA roots and strong political influence shared recollections and best wishes on the Centenary. Following on the national theme of the meeting, The Nigeria Territorial Band, supported by the CSB members, presented a new march Nigeria Centenary Congress, written by Martyn Thomas, which included the national anthem at the trio and various Nigerian references. The CSB ten-piece ensemble later in the meeting offered Songs of Naija, this time for the entire Congress audience, with the different indigenous cultures (Ibibio, Yoruba, and Hausa) responding to their representative native Christian songs with appreciative applause. A third piece used the Congress theme Boundless Possibilities as its title. Written by Nigerian Territorial Bandmaster Joe Akpan, this march medley also featured a cross-section of Nigerian Christian choruses.
The afternoon Talent Festival featured the multi-faceted gifts of the Nigerian Salvationist youth, including dance, timbrels, drama, talent search winners, and a praise band offering called Rock the Floor with Jesus. The Nigerian young people have an amazing grasp on what we would label as Gospel music, engaging the congregation in energetic call-and-response exchanges. The afternoon crowd showed appreciation for the Nigeria Territorial Band’s spirited presentation of the polka Joy in My Heart (Steadman-Allen) and the Territorial Songsters robust, full-bodied singing of the Hallelujah Chorus (Handel).
The Congress Continues Dressed in a “Centenary Wrapper” – Saturday, August 28
On Saturday morning, having been fitted during our quarantine, the CSB members headed to the arena dressed in the Nigerians’ traditional “centenary” shirt, with our ladies Laura Aukes, Rachel Jordan and Miriam Leka in matching skirts. On arrival, we were greeted by a sea of similarly dressed Salvationists wearing handsewn outfits using the purple “centenary wrapper” fabric with its embedded crest and centenary logo but modified in their own indigenous fashion. After a Morning Glory prayer session, two more revered speakers of influence shared their formal congratulations before separate Men’s and Women’s Rallies were held, featuring guest panelists.
In the afternoon, the CSB ensemble shared an impromptu open-air concert which gave us an opportunity to play our full ten-piece repertoire, including All Creatures (Ponsford), God Of Wonders (Himes) and His Eye is on the Sparrow (Burgmayer). The appreciative crowd encircled us five and six rows deep, with a wall of cameras recording each offering.
The final meeting of the day was dubbed a Youth Centenary Concert, featuring a comedian, dancers, a large Singing Company, the Territorial Songsters, and other cultural presentations. The Nigerian Territorial Band shared the spirited Celebration Overture (Cordner) and encouraged the crowd to sing along on You Are Good (Burgmayer). Two unique features of this program were the Beauty Pageant Competition with couples being judged in traditional dress and the launching of the Centenary Album entitled Boundless Possibilities.
Final Day of Centenary Congress, including Commissioning – Sunday, August 28
We arrived at the arena, and we, along with the Nigerian territorial band and songster members, were dressed in festival reds. The remaining 1500 Salvationists were smartly dressed in white uniforms, a striking transformation from the previous two days. The Nigerian Territorial Band supported a lively procession of leadership, the Messengers of Grace session of cadets, and finally the session flag, which led into the heartfelt singing of He Giveth More Grace and Amazing Grace. The Commissioning and Ordination followed.