Portland musician Jenny Van West began her mission, putting instruments in the hands of Portland’s newest Mainers, by accident. She was walking down Congress Street when it happened.
“I saw this young, African guy walking toward me. I just said, ‘Hi’ to him,” she remembered, sitting on her couch last week. “But I had my guitar on my back and I had my fiddle with me.”
He asked about her guitar. Soon, she learned he’d left his home country in a hurry, with just a suitcase, leaving his own guitar behind. He’d been in Portland for just three weeks.
Van West thought how hard it must be to start a life over in a new country. Then, as a musician, she imagined how hard it would be for her to do it without her guitar.
“I thought about all the musicians I know,” she said. “I probably know a hundred people who have a guitar, that’s playable, that maybe they don’t need.”
She heard herself asking the young man if he’d like her to try and find him a guitar.
“And he just was like, ‘yeah,'” she said.
It didn’t take long for her to find one.
“So we became friends and that was kind of the beginning of a lot of change in my life,” she said, “and having an opportunity to connect with people through music.”
That was a year-and-a-half ago. Since then, Van West has found six guitars, two fiddles and a mandolin for people who need them. She works quietly, without fanfare through her own connections with other musicians. She consults with local church leaders in finding instrument-deficient musicians.
Mainly, she helps Portland’s asylum-seeker community who have a lot of time on their hands while waiting for the glacial wheels of the federal bureaucracy to decide their cases. While sitting in this holding pattern, they are barred from looking for work but are free to make music.
Currently, there are six people on her waiting list. She has a line on two guitars being donated soon, but needs four more.
Van West is understandably protective with the identities of the the people she helps. But when I met up with her, she was jamming in her living room with Fiston Bujambi, 24, who came to Portland from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2010.
“Jenny got me a guitar,” he told me, “and I was just like — what? I was just happy and since that day I’ve been playing the guitar.”
Bujambi, who plans to study music production at college in the fall, considers the piano to be his main instrument, but the guitar allows him to write songs at home. He also uses it to sing prayers with his family, who are devout Christians, before bed.
He told Van West, “This is a really good thing you are doing because not many people do this. To make this world better, and great, is to share and be friendly.”
Bujambi is right. Small acts of kindness add up.
In these days of paralyzed governments and celebrity politicians only out to gratify themselves while polishing their own egos, we need more Jenny Van Wests. We need what Pete Seeger called teaspoon brigades: many people doing small, teaspoon-sized feats of heroism, making their own communities — and worlds — better places for us all.
After I left her house, she sent me a message via Facebook.
“Looking at all the bad stuff going on in the world, our country, our towns or neighborhoods,” she wrote, “how many of those things happened because people sat down and played music together? Exactly none.”
She’s right, too.
If you want to help with your teaspoon, contact Jenny Van West at jennyvanwestmusic.com. She’s looking for playable guitars, mandolins, fiddles and small keyboards.