By Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard
MIAMI (12/17/13) - The Florida National Guard struck first, sending a piercing volley of brass-edged thunder across the deck of the Chilean ship.
After a few minutes the Chilean marines lifted their weapons - golden instruments against searing white uniforms - and returned the barrage. Explosions of bass, like the thump-thump-thump of artillery, accompanied a storm of sound that fell on the Guardsmen.
Back and forth, the military units exchanged assaults. The air above the ship pulsed with the clash-crash of metallic impact, the lighter precision strikes of high-pitched whistling, and a deep steady cadence of horns.
Each time the orchestrated tumult swirled over the deck of the Esmeralda it swept away the usual morning clamor of the Port of Miami. And with each successive movement the two sides understood each other a little better, each taking measure of their opposite and quickly gaining appreciation of their skills.
On Dec. 4 members of the Florida Army National Guard's 13th Army Band participated in a unique subject-matter exchange with marines from Chile aboard the Chilean Navy Training Ship Esmeralda.
The four-masted ship stopped in Miami as part of an 11-month cruise around the Americas, and 15 members of its military band met with the National Guard band to exchange ideas, compare best practices and - most audibly - perform together.
In full dress uniforms, the 38 Guard members performed for the Chilean marines on the wooden deck of the 371-foot ship during a morning concert. They were paid in kind with musical selections from the marines in their dress whites. As part of the exchange, the Soldiers dined with their Chilean counterparts and toured the 67-year-old ship.
"This is a testament to music," 13th Army Band Commander Chief Warrant Officer Stephen Rivero said after both bands combined to flawlessly perform a Chilean naval hymn. "Music is the international language. While some of our Soldiers don't speak the same language (the Chileans) speak, we speak the language of music. They make an instant connection."
Both Rivero and Chilean naval band director Jaime Alvarado exchanged their batons and directed the international band, fusing cultural similarities that Rivero said could only be found through music.
"A lot of people don't realize how much of an asset a band is," he said as his Soldiers and the Chileans compared music sheets and talked. "A band can do so many things that words can't."
Nearby Staff Sgt. Marlen Rivero, a clarinet player for the 13th Army Band, spoke with Chilean saxophone player Edmundo Coche, pointing out features of the Miami skyline from the port side of the ship. Like many of the South Florida-based Soldiers, Staff Sgt. Rivero spoke Spanish fluently and was able to translate easily for her other band members.
"It has been a great experience," she explained after exchanging email addresses with Coche. "I think it is great - as part of the National Guard and the band - that we are exposed to so many public relation type-missions where we are ambassadors for the state of Florida."
Coche, a non-commissioned officer with the naval band, added that the band exchange was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity for him and his fellow shipmates on the Esmeralda.
"This may be a small moment," Coche said through a translator, "but it is very important to me and I'm very proud to share it."
But for one member of the Florida National Guard the exchange was much more than just a chance to learn about Chilean military music; for Sgt. Manuel Conejeros it was an opportunity to connect with his cultural roots. The alto saxophone player for the 13th Army Band was born in Chile and came to the U.S. when he was six years old.
With a giant grin on his face, Conejeros toured the ship with his fellow Guardsmen and spoke with the Chilean marines. He said that standing aboard the majestic Esmeralda and conversing with the Chileans made him feel a little closer to his birthplace of Concepcion.
"This brings me great joy just to see Chileans coming to this side of the world," Conejeros said. "My dad always spoke about the military bands in Chile - especially the Navy - (and had) a lot of praise. To experience this first-hand is pretty wild."
Later in the afternoon the musical tempest recommenced.
As dockworkers untied the Esmeralda's mooring lines and the ship slowly slid out of port, the 13th Army Band stood on the sprawling wharf and cut loose with salvos of Chilean and U.S. military music. The throaty buzzing of tubas and splash-sizzle of cymbals drew the attention of everyone within earshot.
Chilean sailors and marines lining the ship's decks countered the Guardsmen with a baritone rendition of "Brazas a Ceñir" - a popular Chilean naval anthem:
"Navega con un cantar
lejos te esperan mil dichas
que no podrás olvidar."
The song drifted back across the water as a tugboat guided the ship further out into Biscayne Bay.
The music quickly faded as the Esmeralda made its final pass of the wharf on its way to the next stop of Puerto Rico. The Chilean voices competed for a few more moments with the low growl of the tugboat and the clatter of traffic moving through the port.
Soon it ceased - the harmony of the exchange was swallowed in a dissonant drone played by commerce at the Port of Miami.