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American Music Abroad program forms connections across cultures

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Henhouse Prowler’s bluegrass band, from left, Jon Goldfine (upright bass), Kyle O’Brien (mandolin), Chris Dollar (guitar) and Homer High alumni Ben Wright (banjo), play for Homer Elementary School students Friday in Homer.

The lyrics may have been in a Nigerian dialect or Kyrgyz, but the American kids were jamming hard to them on Friday morning in the Homer Intermediate School auditorium.

Hundreds of hands clapped in time to the music, and mimicked the signature moves. And the scores of bodies filling the auditorium, danced the way the people of Kyrgyzstan — a nation of 6 million between China and Russia — dance.

And that’s the point of Homer graduate Ben Wright’s bluegrass band, the Henhouse Prowlers, which performed for the kids all morning.

Wright — who plays banjo — and his three bandmates, Jon Goldfine on bass, Kyle O’Brien on mandolin and fiddle and guitarist Chris Dollar, travel across the world playing and learning music from other countries. The band’s travels are sponsored in part by the U.S. State Department through a program called American Music Abroad, which funds the travels of an assortment of American roots music ensembles.

They then return to America and share those experiences.

Wright, founder of the Henhouse Prowlers, and Homer High School graduate of the class of 1995, brought the music to his alma mater Friday, as part of an East Coast tour. The band played some of its own original bluegrass songs, as well as covers and also played songs that it learned in other countries.

Wright said the best part of his cross-cultural interactions is sharing a language with people he couldn’t otherwise converse with: the language of music.

“I could be in Saudi Arabia, with a group of people who only speak Arabic, and end up feeling a deep personal connection with them because we shared music,” Wright said.

The group has been in 25 countries and most of the United States. And while it is a bluegrass band — Wright bought a banjo on impulse from a storefront window in 1999 — the musicians also like to hear how the music they learn in other countries sounds on their instruments.

The band was chosen to be part of the American Music Abroad program after auditioning for it in 2014. And stemming from that experience, two years ago, Wright decided to form his own nonprofit called the Bluegrass Ambassadors. Through that organization, he hopes to raise enough money to fund the band’s travels without federal dollars.

He wants to keep traveling, because of the awareness it spreads of other cultures.

When singing a Nigerian hip-hop tune, “Chop my Money,” Wright explained that in that context, “chop” actually means “spend.” The band showed the kids how to slap their hands together in the same way crowds do in Nigeria.

When the music played, the children were only too happy to comply.

Jumping out of their seats with arms in the air, the chorus of young voices rose to meet the band’s in a roar.

And that, says Wright, is what it’s all about.

The band can be singing in the Kyrgyz of Kyrgystan, Urdu of Pakistan, Uganda’s Luganda or Nigerian Pidgin, a mix of English and more than 500 Nigerian languages — but listeners will feel connected to it.

After the show, fourth-grader Kiley Bushneck said she had so much fun she couldn’t pick just one song.

“They’re all my favorite,” she said.

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