Tony Costa is a singer-songwriter from New Jersey who performs under the name Astronaut Jones. He also teaches music for a living. This past June, he spent two days teaching kids who just might have been seeing a guitar for the first time.
Costa was part of a group from Sylvia's Children (an organization run by his mother) who traveled to Uganda, Africa to teach children at the Mbiriizi Primary School.
"None of the children had ever played guitar before," said Tony Costa. "One of the music teachers there loves the sound of the guitar and had always wanted to learn it, but it's hard for them to get one. It's very expensive to get one in their area and very few people play guitar so you have to search for people who could give lessons and the lessons are very expensive.
"The children were thrilled which made me feel phenomanal to be able to teach them how to play. It's funny, people ask me how were the students. I'd say they were just like any kid as a student who plays guitar. The first time a kid picks up a guitar they start banging on it because they love the sound of it. It was wild. Language was only a problem for the first hour or so. Without sounding like a Hallmark Card, music is its own language and it pretty much takes over afterwards."
The organization was able to get 17 guitars donated which they gave to the school. Costa taught two days of classes with - about four hours a day. He was able to teach some of the students and the teachers the basics and techniques of playing guitar.
"After about an hour of teaching them it was no longer about my words, it was about the sounds I was making," he said. "And that's what you really want them to pick up on. I can tell you anything but you have to hear the music to be able to pick it up. It has to resonate with you and it just did with certain kids."
Of course, it wasn't all work for Costa. Being in Africa, he went on safari for the first time and ran into elephants and bulls on the road. They even had the experience of seeing an elephant charge their truck before they took off down the road!
"It was so surreal," he said. "At times I'd turn to someone and say, 'do you realize we're in Africa?'"
Equally as surreal was learning that Africans are actually big fans of country music. He did a double take the first time he passed by a store that was blaring Willie Nelson. The people at the school asked him to send them some music.
Originally they wanted to get some acoustic music they could listen to and learn to play but then they started asking him for country tunes. Secretly, I know he's hoping that the two CDs of Astronaut Jones becomes an underground hit there.
"If I go back next year and they're playing one of my songs, I think I'll just collapse! That would be the ultimate compliment... Plus I could say I'm big in Africa!"
For more information on Sylvia's Children and how you can help visit http://sylviaschildren.org and for more information on Tony Costa (aka Astronaut Jones) visit http://astronautjonesnj.com
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.