Although Aaron English has been back from Africa for some time, he still feels like he’s returning.
The independent musician from Seattle was overseas for two months making “raw music.” During that time he started his own non-profit group, which aims to set up youth music programs. That work carried over with him when he came back stateside.
“Even though I’m back here,” he said, “I’m still working on that every day setting up donations for music instruments from the U.S. and money donations that are going to teachers over there. It turned into a big job.”
Coupled with his touring, English is a busy guy. But he saw a need in Africa, so he decided to help. He was curious, too, of Africa’s culture; particularly the continent’s music traditions.
His band – the Aaron English Band – is known for its “worldly inspired” music, playing instruments like the hurdy-gurdy, didgeridoo, kalimba and marimba and often singing in different languages. English observed and studied Africa’s music, eventually incorporating it into his own work and styles.
“That’s a big defining part of my music,” he said. “I’ll take traditional songs from other places and interpret them. But the chance to travel without being a tourist was attractive. You can always go somewhere and ‘see the sights’ but I really wanted to see the place and meet the people.”
During his time in Africa, English would often find himself in the production studio. He helped produce songs for “East Africa’s biggest star” Nazizi, a reggae dancehall pop singer. An album was recorded; the proceeds of which will be donated to the orphanage involved with English’s youth music program.
“The money comes right back around to help this orphanage,” he said. “I also ended up teaching piano lessons, which I’ve never done before. While I was at one of these orphanages, I set up a piano and I became known as Uncle Piano. Every time one of my kids saw me they’d say, ‘Piano lesson?’”
English also helped arrange a traditional dance program at another orphanage, where children are “learning traditional rhythms and dances for their tribes.” With these skills, the children will be able to perform at local weddings and earn a source of income, English said.
English’s stay in Africa introduced him to new musical styles and techniques. Hip-hop, he said, is “as popular there as it is here.” He also discovered Africa’s music culture enveloped by a lot of reggae and gospel. The music found is generally “very accessible.”
“You may not be able to play or afford an instrument, but you can still learn to rap,” he said. “Everybody wants to be just like the famous rap and hip-hop stars [in America].”
His stay in Africa also gave him an education in American music.
“The day I arrived, I flew into Nairobi and was picked up by my co-producers and recording studio in Kenya,” said English. “They drove across Kenya and had a mix playing. I kept asking, ‘Who’s this? Who’s this?’ And they would say, ‘Really? This is Justin Timberlake. This is Rhianna. This is Kanye.’”
After his two months were up, English was exhausted and ready to go home. He had planned a full schedule during his time in Africa, only to be on tour once he returned. But his trip left him with a new perspective.
“I very quickly figured out when you take out everything that is unfamiliar, what is left is you,” he said. “It was a growing opportunity because very little was familiar. I figured out the things that changed were not essential. They were not part of who I was, at least not deep in the core. That was a great discovery.”