The March On Story
By Kevin Young
For anyone whose vision of military musical performances is characterized by large brass and orchestral ensembles, stoically performing patriotic marching songs at highly formal occasions, Sound Of Freedom (EMI Music Canada) will come as a surprise.
Featuring a backup band hand-picked from the vast number of musicians serving as members of the Canadian Forces (CF) and civilian singers Alexandria Beck, Mark Masri, Luke McMaster, Annie Villeneuve and Glass Tiger’s Alan Frew, Sound Of Freedom is a unique musical collaboration that’s far from somber, or staid.
Aptly named, Sound Of Freedom is an effort to raise both awareness and funds for Canadian Forces Personnel and Family Support Services’ (CFPFSS) initiatives such as the Support Our Troops program, the CF Personnel Assistance, Soldier On and Hospital Comforts Funds, Operation Santa Claus and the Military Families Fund. Originally created in 1950, the CFPFSS is not a political entity. Rather, it is an organization wholly dedicated to boosting the morale of military families and CF members by meeting specific challenges brought about by the conditions of their service – Challenges that may be similar to those faced by Canadian civilians at times, but are often exasperated by frequent relocations, operational deployments and injuries suffered during their service.
Although more traditional ensembles such as the CF Central Band Pipers and Air Command Pipe and Drums contribute to the record, most notably on album opener ‘Hector The Hero’ – an adaptation of James Scott Skinner’s classic Scottish lament – the bulk of Sound Of Freedom is decidedly contemporary; a seamless blend of country-tinged adult contemporary and straight up pop.
The sound, says producer Sam Reid, is as much a product of the songs chosen for the album, as it is of the chemistry between the CF musicians who performed them. Among them, Warrant Officers Aldwin Albino (Drums/Percussion), Mike Manny (Piano/Keyboards), Brayden Wise (Bass) and former Killer Dwarfs and Helix guitarist, Sergeant Mike Hall. “I think it may surprise Canadians to hear that the military is the largest single employer of musicians in Canada,” Reid says. “These guys are trained soldiers, but great musicians as well. The amount of talent and dedication they brought to the process was brilliant.”
Recorded largely at the Canadian Forces Central Band Studio in Ottawa and at Newmarket, Ontario’s SlipOne Digital in 2010 and 2011, Sound Of Freedom originated with an idea that principal singer, Alexandria Beck, pitched to the CF in 2009. A former Forces veteran herself – one of the youngest ever recruited into a CF Reserve Band – Beck’s desire to enlist was inspired by her family’s long involvement with the military, which began with her grandfather’s efforts to organize Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War II, and continued with her father’s service in Korea with the US Army.
Even while living in the UK, the classically trained Canadian opera singer maintained her ties to the Forces and performed at high profile events including Canada Day Celebrations in Trafalgar Square, and Canadian Memorial Services of Remembrance in London’s Green Park. When Beck’s idea came to the attention of then Associate Director General of the CFPFSS, Bob Smith, who was looking for new ways to promote the program to Canadians, he believed she was uniquely suited to be a featured performer on just this type of project.
Owing in large part to the lengthy deployment of Canadian troops in Afghanistan a number of musical tributes have been inspired by the CF in recent years. Sound Of Freedom, however, was never intended as an overt tribute, explains Todd Kealey, the album’s Executive Producer and National Manager Strategic Communications for the CFPFSS. “Here, we’re trying to achieve something on a truly national scale and we wanted to find songs people could put their own interpretation on, whether they’re in the Forces, or not.”
Although the eleven tracks on Sound Of Freedom reflect personal challenges often faced by members of the CF and their families, they’re the type of songs anyone can find their own lives and struggles reflected in. Ranging from tracks that deal with the relentless loneliness we all feel at times, like ‘Invisible’ and ‘Somewhere In This World’, through standout ballads such as ‘Hell and Back’ – which features a duet between Frew and Quebec songstress, Annie Villeneuve – to Luke McMaster’s irrepressibly upbeat ‘Diamonds From Drops Of Rain’, “It doesn’t matter who you are,” Beck says. “You’ll relate to them.”
In addition to McMaster and Frew, contributing writers include Tebey Ottoh (Emerson Drive, Big & Rich), Christopher Ward (Diana Ross, Meredith Brooks, Alannah Myles) Tommy Lee James (Tim McGraw, Emerson Drive, Taylor Swift) and Beck herself, whose talents are featured on ‘You Keep Us Free’, a track co-written with Giles Martin, son of famed Beatles producer, George Martin.
Above and beyond entertaining listeners, however, Sound Of Freedom’s core purpose is to raise awareness and money to better enable CFPFSS to help military families, as well as active and former members of the Forces, to cope with decidedly personal challenges in their lives. That’s an effort both the military musicians and civilian singers featured on Sound Of Freedom feel very strongly about, and the reason they’ve adopted the band name March On – a name that highlights not only the spirit and determination of those the album is intended to help, but each band member’s personal dedication to the cause of doing so.
While Glass Tiger band mates Alan Frew and Sam Reid are civilians, both have deep, long term ties to the military; bonds originally forged on a mid-90s show tour to entertain troops serving in Bosnia that have only deepened in recent years during trips to Afghanistan such as 2010’s Team Canada mission.
“When you go there, it hits home that this is one of the most selfless, passionate and brave groups of people you’ll ever meet,” Frew says. “They believe in the cause of bringing dignity and humanity to areas of the world that would otherwise be ignored, and this album is another way to show them we care.”
Although relatively new to the military, guitarist Sgt. Hall, whose father was also a CF member, has a firsthand understanding of the challenges military families often face. As a member of the Winnipeg-based RCAF Band since 2009, he is also one of few CF musicians to have been sent to Afghanistan as both a performer and armed escort. “Because I’m a serving member of the military I’m not allowed to be in a forward area unless I’m fully armed and trained,” he says. “Having said that, if it’s down to the guitar player holding the enemy off, I think we’re in trouble.”
When Sgt. Hall walked on stage in Kandahar, he literally put down his weapon and picked up his guitar. “I’m there, looking at a few thousand young people who are doing such a difficult job, and to bring a little piece of home to them, I felt like some real good had been done. When I meet people that have ten or fifteen years in, that means they’ve gone through ten years of war and incredible hardships for themselves and their families. They stood up when the country asked them to and we need to lead the world in taking care of them. That’s the reason I wanted to be involved in this.”
Too often the military is viewed as an impersonal machine as opposed to the sum of its parts; dedicated individuals whose impulse to serve is rooted firmly in a desire all Canadians share – a desire to better the situations of others regardless of who they are, or where they live in our world. At the core, that, above all, is what Sound Of Freedom is meant to communicate. “It’s about people, not politics,” Reid says.
CFPFSS programs such as the Military Families Fund offer a wide range of support, including everything from the provision of financial assistance for the relocation of those discharged for medical reasons, to funding tutoring and badly needed home renovations for CF members with special needs children. In many cases, they are a last resort for those struggling to care for their families, and their sole remaining means of making ‘Diamonds From Drops Of Rain’ themselves in what are very often truly difficult circumstances.
Sound Of Freedom offers Canadians a way to help them do so – a chance not only to enable CFPFSS to help those in need more effectively, but also a unique way of celebrating the values civilians and those who serve them as members of the Canadian Forces share.