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Charles Dujat: A Journey to the West

August, 2009
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j2w-charles-1  Music teacher Charles Dujat is dressed for the weather in a loose short sleeve shirt, relaxed khakis, black hat, and sandals. The sunglasses he sported were exactly what were needed on this hot, sunny day at the Cherry Tree Lane campus of the International Montessori School of Beijing. He leans over a railing, watching some of his students play soccer in the open green field at the two-year old campus. Shouting encouragement to the kids, he marvels at their stamina in this heat. “Just a little while more or they’re going to melt,” he says and sits down at a patio table generously shaded with an overhead umbrella.

  As he indulges his students with a few more minutes to finish their game, a staff member calls out to him and walks over with a family in tow. “Do you remember this kid?” she asks with a smile as the group approaches him. A family has brought their teenage son back to visit his former teacher. Charles greets them with pleasant surprise- his student is still recognizable. “When you said his name, I knew right away!” He chats enthusiastically with his former student and the parents, remembering long-ago memories with a smile.
  Soon it was time to call in the kids from the relentless heat. “Fourth and fifth graders line up!” he shouts with that agreeable accent native to the French. The kids approach the sidelines, drenched in sweat and beaming with contentment. They take their drink of water, follow Charles into the building, and are given a bathroom break before walking into the cool of their pleasantly eclectic music room.j2w-2
  A variety of instruments are arranged in every area of the room, and the decor attests to the wide array of music education Charles brings to the curriculum, as well as reflecting his personality. There are pictures of Mozart, Bach, Handel and other classical masters adorning the wall. Groupings of instruments like djembe drums and guitars sit expectantly in their spaces. A keyboard, drum set, bass, guitar, and sound equipment take up another section of the room. Other fascinating instruments like the digital music mixer, Theremin, and Q chord synthesizer share this happy, cozy space.
  Charles has been with MSB for over a decade so when the new campus was constructed, he was able to have a say in what the music room should look like. “I knew what I wanted before it was built so when we moved into this campus, I already had a vision for it, down to the Chinese cabinets,” he says.
  Growing with MSB also means growing with their music program. As a music educator, he teaches all grades at the school, from Kindergarten to Grade 6. Charles may be instilling music at a young age in his students, but he himself came late to music. He started with learning the guitar and naturally moved to other instruments as he honed his skills. Charles’ father was musically inclined too, but Charles remembers that there was never much of an opportunity for his dad to actually fulfill the talent. He seeks to give his students this opportunity every day, believing that learning music is “the development of a very specific joy.”
  As his students trickle in from the bathroom after their football game, they automatically take a seat on one of the stools and ease into their roles as eager young musicians, chatting about what instruments each of them play. This particular group of students who make up MSB’s music band, Journey to the West, is a talented bunch.j2w-3
  His desire to create something beyond teaching students to merely play instruments has led Charles to devote time and energy into developing Journey to the West. “It’s not just learning to play instruments, but being in a band helps them to listen to each other….they work together as a team, communicate, and can be a part of something more…able to create together,” marvels Charles.
  Journey to the West showed off their hard work in their debut performance at the International Montessori Conference this past May. The group performed an adaptation of the classic Chinese story Journey to the West (which is the origin of the band’s name) in full traditional costume and make-up. Members of the band displayed striking skills in an impressive plate-twirling display as well as an entertaining magic act. The band also played an assorted set of blues and jazz together, including a soulful version of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, to the loud applause of the crowd.
  "We wanted all these international attendees to see that kids here can perform both eastern and western styles,” says Charles about the breadth of the group’s performance that day.
  It’s easy to forget that these are nine and ten-year-old kids who, because of the instrument’s weight, have to sit down during most of their sets when playing their guitars and bass. Although the kids are multi-talented, each member has a main role in the band: Hellen plays the piano; Angela experiments with the Q Chord; Alex plays the drums; Hugo is the lead guitarist and is often spotted "scratching” on the music mixer; Daniel thumps on the bass; Wilfred is master of the percussion instruments, and also plays the Theremin and does vocals; David is the sound engineer and plays drums; Cailin plays the rhythm guitar and sings; and Roger is the lead vocalist.
  Charles starts to talk about the Blues Brothers act that Journey to the West is scheduled to perform as the closing event at the upcoming school talent show. “Why don’t we show her?” says Roger. “But who will play the drums? Alex is not here!” a voice exclaims with dismay. “I’ll play the drums,” offers Charles.
  In a few short minutes, with their Teaching Assistant Nisha’s help, the kids have their black hats, black ties, and sunglasses on. "Nisha, can you plug that in?” the guitarist asks. Nisha helps the kids prepare their instruments and costumes, then like a well-oiled machine they find their places on the set and start tuning their instruments. Charles takes the drummer’s place and with a few words of direction, the kids begin their Blues Brothers act. Charles plays and directs at the same time, helping them fine-tune their timing and entrance. Just a couple words of instruction and the kids seem to be on their way to a perfect performance later that week. j2w-41
  His manner puts the kids at ease, but it’s not hard to see that they respect him as their teacher, music coach, and leader of the band. A music man at heart, Charles has the good fortune of being able to enjoy music in his home life as well.
  Charles lives in Beijing with his wife Cecile, who also teaches at MSB, and their two sons. Guillaume is a teenager and Hugo, his younger son, is a member of Journey to the West. His family is also musically and artistically talented, with everyone playing different instruments. Cecile was also the one that choreographed much of Journey to the West’s performance at the International Montessori Conference.
  "I have roots here”, says Charles, seeing the city through the eyes of a “zhongguo tong”, or “old China hand”. He speaks of community meetings long ago when people discussed the tearing down of hutongs for new developments. He has seen the city grow and has grown with it, finding an opportunity and a place to belong.
  Watching Charles beat on the drums in his music room while directing his students demonstrates that when talent and opportunity meet, it is a great thing indeed.
By Vicky Li Yip
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