The latest dispatch from Africa arrived from Alex Paullin:
“With sore shoulders and tired legs, completely weighed down by our gear and equipment, we ambled into Maseru like pack mules. It is still difficult to catch my breath and decipher my brain’s staticky thoughts and feelings about this place.”
He and his buddy Chris Volosevich had landed in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, a landlocked country in southern Africa where they were working out the cobwebs of jet lag, assimilating themselves into a culture Paullin has grown to appreciate, digging the local street food and music, and getting back to work. Volosevich’s first impressions became a blog post that Paullin shared via email.
Paullin, 26, a Chesterfield County native and graduate of Monacan High and James Madison University, is chasing a dream and going to extremes to make a difference. He is the founder of Conservation Music, a nonprofit that aims to use music to educate residents of rural developing communities about conservation and sustainability.
Quite simply, Paullin envisions a world in which “the memorable, emotional and unifying power of music contributes to the healing of the Earth.”
Which, of course, is not so simple at all. But then neither is the way this all came to be.
Paullin began playing piano at age 6 and guitar at 10. Later, he grew to love the outdoors, including serving as a rock-climbing and white-water kayaking guide. His academic choices in college reflected his varied interests. He majored in geographic science with four minors: environmental science, environmental studies, geology and jazz studies.
The question became: What was he going to do?
“I was caught between music and environmental conservation; the needle was kind of bouncing back and forth,” Paullin said in a phone interview from his parents’ home in North Chesterfield, just before flying back to Africa in April. He has spent much of the past two years in Africa, and is now back for an additional nine months.
He loved music, and his band, Philosophunk, was doing well. After earning his degree, he put his studies to use at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, where his grandfather worked in the map department long ago and where he worked as a research intern in the standards and practices department. His grandfather died when Paullin was age 6, but Paullin grew up surrounded not only by his grandfather’s artifacts from around the world but also by his adventurous spirit.
However, he felt totally drawn to neither music nor conservation by themselves.
“I was just trying to calculate the answer to this equation of who I was,” he said.
The equation — like Paullin’s stories of his journey of discovery — was meandering and interesting and included a job helping lead an expedition in search of an ancient mountain fortress in Lesotho. That trip proved to be a steppingstone to another adventure along the 1,000-mile-long Okavango River, from the headwaters in Angola — where he had to be careful not to roll over land mines while searching for campsites — all the way to the Kalahari Desert where the water literally ran out. For the first one-third of the trip, he documented the land-based team of scientists along on the journey; for the final two-thirds, he climbed in a canoe and paddled the rest of the way.
During the long days of paddling the river — through conversation and reflection — he figured out how music and environmental conservation fit together in the puzzle of his life.
“I realized that I could actually put them together,” he recalled, “and not only could I do it, but I should do it.”
He was uniquely positioned in that he could relate to musicians and conservationists, and he determined there most certainly was a need in a place where people rely on the food they grow, but their topsoil is washing away, springs are drying up and there’s no wildlife to hunt and eat.
“The environment is something that not many people are advocating for there,” he said.
Paullin started out, as he put it, “cruising around Southern Africa on a rusted-out old motorbike,” going into villages and making connections with musicians, then hanging out and making music. He doesn’t stay for a day or two, hand out a few brochures, lecture the locals about what’s right and wrong and then blast out to the next village.
“The post-colonial attitude of foreigners coming and telling everybody what they should do is not always well-received,” he said.
So, Paullin tries to get to know the people and collaborates with local musicians — singing in local languages and in local styles — to create music that spreads helpful messages about farming methods, the importance of sustainable land use and other critical issues that might not seem the mostly likely information to be imparted in song: climate change, erosion, overfishing, deforestation and poaching, among others. Music can be a more powerful tool than mere words in driving home a point, said Paullin, who can see himself working in Africa for years to come.
And it’s more effective, Paullin said, that he is not the messenger.
“We’re using the power of music and the power of local spokespeople,” he said. “I try to stay in the background as much as I can to empower these musicians to be the spokespeople for their brothers and sisters.”
Conservation Music records the music and disseminates it by way of video, national broadcasting services, social media and live events. A documentary is in the works.
“Many young nonprofits seem to do the whole ‘Going out to help Africa’ act wrong, focusing on the gifts and talents they can solely provide to those in need,” wrote David Young of National Geographic in an email about Conservation Music. Young was Paullin’s supervisor during his internship, and he has followed the ascent of Conservation Music. “But Alex and Conservation Music found a just solution to the problem of the overused ‘voice for the voiceless’ idea: They let local people speak for themselves. Or more specifically, sing and play for themselves.”
Paullin no longer works alone now that Volosevich, his friend and drummer from his band, accompanied him to Africa on this trip. He has a team of volunteers in Virginia doing social media, administration and blogging, and Paullin is feeling momentum. He was invited to give his first TED Talk before he returned to Africa, and a fundraising effort is underway at Indiegogo. To this point, funding has come from previous crowdfunding efforts, benefit concerts back in Richmond played by Paullin’s band, and from Paullin’s pockets. He also has joined the Cultivating the Globally Sustainable Self Summit Series.
“We’re severely underfunded but also incredibly ambitious,” he said. “Point being, we won’t be sitting and waiting for funding before getting our hands dirty. The work must be done.
“I think this is my calling.”