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Ideas about how a musician might get into humanitarian aid work?

January 30, 2014

Music Video ShotSo I got this question a little while ago, and I it’s a long way outside my area of expertise. Not to worry, because fortunately Michael Herrman of band Buoy LaRue was able to field this one!

You can see one of his music videos, made collaboratively with local musicians and shot in Kabul called “Comes & Goes”.

Hi Nick,
Do you have any ideas about how a musician might get into humanitarian aid work in Southern Africa? Or how a musician living in the US might prepare himself to become a good candidate for this kind of work? There is a good chance that I will be moving to South Africa in a couple of years to pursue an advanced degree and my partner, a successful musician with no college degree, will be coming with me. He isinterested in getting into aid work, but a degree is a prerequisite for most organizations we have researched thus far. He has other skills in addition to music, including building and remodeling work, and he would like to work with children–he has been especially inspired by UNICEF’s projects. Should he think about finishing school (as he has a couple of years worth of community college credits under his belt), at the very least, or can he bulk up his experience with extensive volunteer work prior to our departure? Thank you! Sabennaba

Nick: So first off Michael, why don’t you tell us a little about your story, and why you’re the right person to advise on this one.

Michael: My wife works for an INGO in Kabul, Afghanistan, and I was living in the States, and we were apart for a number of months. I finally decided that I wanted to go and not only see what her world is like, but it turned out that there was a school there teaching Afghan kids how to play rock and roll. I felt there was a niche for me to fill there – I was teaching music before I left, but when I went out there I just fell in love with what the school was doing, realized that they had all of this potential to make a difference in this community, but no resources at all. I just felt that I was in the right place at the right time – what I could offer to this school just felt like my calling, and gave me a sense of purpose. Since then I’ve been doing benefit concerts for the school, raising money for instruments, and I’m planning on going back in the next month or two. My particular experience was as an artist with a partner in the humanitarian aid world who was based in a place where there just happened to be a music school. I just took a leap, and closed down my life in Portland, and just went out there to be with her and to use what I do to help people.

I was teaching – bass, guitar, drums, whatever people wanted to learn. The co-founder of the school is an accomplished cellist and pianist – together, we split up the lessons and lead groups of students in ensemble rehearsals every week. We wanted to show them what it was like to play music with other people too. Allowing them space to develop new ways of communicating with each other in order to play the song. I was teaching in Portland for 10 years, and my experience in Kabul was unlike anything else. These kids, many of them are young adults, but they’re having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to play music, and there’s a lot of inspiration there. Being able to be a part of that, helping to foster a lot of young bands that are popping up there, it’s great.

Nick: So lets get to the question:

Michael: Well, I have no idea about Southern Africa in particular, but In general my advice to any musician who wants to work abroad or volunteer would be to figure out who is doing what it is that you’re passionate about and just reach out to them. In my case what I’m particularly fond of is working with youth – using music as therapy for traumatized youth. For me it was hanging out at music venues, finding places where they are working with youth and music. At the very least, just get yourself there – that’s usually the hardest part!

One of the things that I realized being there, that I think is true across the board really, is just getting yourself there. You’ll find a way to be useful, and there’ll be something that you’re needed for. Just buying your plane ticket is the hardest part. Once you get there I’m almost positive that it will work out. I mean, you should do your research, and make sure that there is something there for you, but I think just getting there is the hardest part!

NOTE: Michael is married to an aid worker who works for a major international agency. Because of that he gets key benefits like health insurance, evacuation insurance, inclusion in security plans and other important things. I DO NOT recommend that anyone travel to a place like Afghanistan without these key things. It’s clearly very different in places with established tourist infrastructure, but please, please be careful out there – make sure you do your research about safety and security before you book a plane ticket.

You can find more about Michael and Buoy LaRue at, and learn about the Kabul School of Rock at Sound Studio Projects. Follow Buoy LaRue on Facebook (, and buy CDs and merch here!

Thanks Michael!

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