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St. Louis Teens from Sudan Keep The Beat At Music Camp And At Home

David Mulat, 13, and his sister Betty (short for Bethlehem), 15
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Summer camp is where teenagers make friends and sometimes find their first love. It’s also a place they can improve social skills and self-esteem.

A new music day camp in St. Louis focuses on building confidence as well as musical ability. David Mulat, 13, and his sister Betty (short for Bethlehem), 15, are attending the Littlestone Summer Music Festival at St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church in South City on scholarships.

Three years ago, the Mulat family emigrated from Sudan by way of Israel to the United States. As Christians, the parents experienced difficulty living in a predominantly Muslim country. They also sought greater opportunity for themselves and their children.

“We came here for work, and a better life,” David told St. Louis Public Radio.

The Rhythm and Connection of Life and Music

David, who plays the piano, and Betty, a singer, have an 8-year-old sister and 6-month-old brother. Their father works as a produce packager from 7 p.m. until 3 in the morning, barely crossing paths with their mother, who leaves for her hotel housekeeping job at 8 a.m.

The rhythm of their lives involves an intricate melody that calls upon David and Betty to help out with babysitting and chores. Sometimes they quarrel.

“This morning, I was supposed to wash the dishes but I was asleep, so she washed the dishes,” David explained. “And she said, ‘It was your turn,’ and I said, ‘Why did you wash the dishes if it was my turn?’ and she said, ‘Because you were asleep.”

“Sometimes, we’re friends and other times we don’t get along; we fight. But I think that’s what brothers and sisters do,” Betty said.

The Mulat family, like a good musical performance, is all about interconnection.

“When you sing, it’s not just you singing. You have to connect to the audience,” Betty said.

Keeping the Beat

Each day at the Littlestone camp begins with choir practice. On the second day, choir director Chris Thomas noticed the kids were starting to get the hang of what they’d practiced the day before. The big-band sound of “Sing, Sing, Sing” is among the selections for a 6 p.m. Friday, June 20 public performance at St. Timothy’s.

Singing is not David’s favorite musical activity but he’s managing to enjoy choir. And he’s learning a new way to make music in beatboxing class, with instructor Billy Frazier.

“Beatboxing is essentially an a cappella version of percussion,” Frazier said. “It’s making those drum noises and percussion noises with nothing but your mouth, tongue and lips.”

Instructor Billy Frazier shows the class how beatboxing's done, with comment by camper Quinn Coffman.

Beatboxers have to remember to breathe in a place that fits naturally, and to create an ending that makes sense, rather than just coming to an abrupt stop. Beatboxing with others requires everyone to make a different sound.

“Don’t think too hard about it,” Frazier told the table of four campers before starting a game of “Pass the Beat” in which each person adds to the chain, kind of like a game of musical “Telephone.”

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David felt he got the hang of it without too much trouble. “I was nervous, but it was fun,” he said.

Camper Quinn Coffman, 12, of Webster Groves (bottom right in the video, with reddish hair) jumped right into beatboxing as well.

“I play trumpet, and what I like about beatboxing is you don’t have to lug around the big equipment,” Quinn said.

Playing music of any kind is a way for young people to have a measure of control in their lives, which are largely structured by parents and school officials.

“As a child, you don’t get to make many decisions, but when you’re in music, you can play it how you want to,” Quinn said.

Childhood Camp Experience Inspires Founder

Empowering campers is a goal of Littlestone, according to Brian Biederman who began the local camp this year, with assistance from St. Louis friends he met at Vanderbilt. He started his first music camp last year in Nashville, as chronicled by the Huffington Post, after finishing his masters in music and a short stint of working in the nonprofit sector. Now, he teaches middle school.

Brian Biederman
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Brian Biederman

“I took the nonprofit experience and my teaching experience and kind of mashed it into the thing I love — which is summer music camp,” Biederman said.

Six years of music camp while growing up in Long Island changed the course of Biederman’s own life. He formed lasting friendships and gained self-assurance while improving his piano skills.

Biederman's parents could afford music camp but many other parents who want the best for their children, cannot. He wants to ensure that underserved children have that experience. Donations keep the cost of Littlestone at $100 for the two weeks, and provide for scholarships for kids like David and Betty: bright and talented but lacking financial resources.

The camp’s offerings include the History of Motown, Songwriting and Musical Theater. Something that’s not on the itinerary, but explicit in Camp Littlestone’s mission, is confidence-building.

“That’s what our whole camp is about — trying new musical things but also trying new social things,” Beiderman said.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.