A Young Congolese Immigrant Finds Calling With Help From His Drumming Teacher

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Drummers Jonathan Mande and Jorge Perez-Albela at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Drummers Jonathan Mande and Jorge Perez-Albela at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Editor's Note: This story contains details that may be upsetting to some readers.

Jonathan Mande, 28, can still remember small details of growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"There was a moment, sitting on my father's lap, looking into the sky, a light passing by and telling my dad — I remember this vividly — I told him I thought it was a shooting star, and he told me that it wasn't," Jonathan says.

Looking back, Jonathan understands that what he saw was probably a flare or an explosive device. These moments of innocence regularly shattered by a sense of danger were present throughout his childhood.

Jonathan was born in 1991 into a region in conflict at a particularly turbulent time. Neighboring Rwanda was locked in a brutal civil war, which included the horrific Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. The fighting soon bled into Congo, leading to the First and Second Congo Wars, the latter of which scholars refer to as the "Africa World War." Instability plagued the nation. And Jonathan was a child bearing witness.

"I saw people dead, and what they used to do was they would put people on tires — their heads in tires and light them up on fire," Jonathan says. "I remember those things very clearly. I remember seeing somebody that had been burnt and the remains of it."

When Jonathan reflects on that time now, he says he went into a state of shock. He doesn't ever remember crying from the horrors he saw.

"You have to survive or you're going to die," Jonathan says. "It's literally a life-or-death situation."

As the violence raged on, Jonathan's family — 10 kids and their parents — fled Congo. In shifts, the family moved from Congo to Cameroon, and eventually made it to the United States. In 2002, Jonathan, along with four of his siblings and his mother, found their way to Boston and moved into a homeless shelter in Brookline.

"You have to survive or you're going to die. It's literally a life-or-death situation."

Jonathan Mande

For 11-year-old Jonathan, who didn't speak English, the transition was rough, especially at school.

"Not only did I not feel accepted by the white kids there, even some of the black kids made fun of me," Jonathan says.

He started getting in trouble. In elementary school, Jonathan was diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities. By the time he was in high school, he would be formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Jonathan remembers feeling a tremendous disconnect to the world around him.

Then he met Jorge Perez-Albela. The 50-year-old professional drummer and teacher is originally from Lima, Peru, and now lives in Ashland, Mass.

"I use drums as a tool to give a positive impact in the life of students," Jorge says.

Jorge Perez-Albela plays a cajon, while Jonathan Mande plays cajon and shaker. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Jorge Perez-Albela plays a cajon, while Jonathan Mande plays cajon and shaker. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Jorge was leading a small after-school program at Jonathan's school for kids like him — children with special needs and behavioral challenges. When Jonathan first stepped into his classroom and sat behind a drum, Jorge was floored.

"We started jamming, and it was like 'click,' instantly," Jorge says. "You know, we were speaking the same musical language right away."

Jorge wanted to help Jonathan channel all his energy and trauma into drumming. He remembers telling Jonathan he possessed a special something that not everyone has: a natural ability to play deeply authentic music. He wanted to teach him more formal skills, but not at the expense of his natural talent.

"I don't want you to change," Jorge says he told Jonathan. "I just want you to have more tools. And still be yourself."

Jonathan could sense right away that Jorge's interest in him and his drumming was genuine. He says Jorge knew he needed help, but the help he wanted to give wasn't about "fixing" him; it didn't come with an accusation.

Jorge recognized Jonathan needed guidance, and he became a fierce advocate for him in school, keeping in close contact with the school administrators and discussing Jonathan's educational future.

"I was always emphasizing that this kid, we cannot give up on him," Jorge says. "Even if he gets in trouble, you have to give him chances."

Jonathan started to take those chances offered to him seriously. He started to relax and focus more, especially in Jorge's classroom. And he says that playing with Jorge was what helped him form — and find — his identity.

"I was always emphasizing that this kid, we cannot give up on him. Even if he gets in trouble. You have to give him chances."

Jorge Perez-Albela

"The only place where I could really truly share something that was dear to me like that was with Jorge ‘cause rhythm is a very big part of my culture," Jonathan says. "It's interwoven in every facet of life."

On Jonathan's most difficult days, he and Jorge would play for hours, barely speaking. They would communicate through their drumming. This continued as Jonathan became a teenager, transitioned into high school and started showing interest in helping others learn drumming. Jorge responded by bringing him into the fold.

"He would allow me to just sit there as he taught," Jonathan says. "So I was like his apprentice."

Jonathan graduated from high school and eventually went on to Lesley University, where he studied psychology, education and expressive arts therapy. He developed his own holistic method for teaching drums to children. He says he's passing on Jorge's legacy.

Jonathan Mande plays cajon with Jorge Perez-Albela at WBUR’s studios. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Jonathan Mande plays cajon with Jorge Perez-Albela at WBUR’s studios. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"What he has done for me is what I attempted to do for others and continue to do for others," Jonathan says. "I'm just paying it forward."

Now Jonathan works in software sales and teaches drums on the side. He specializes in children who need extra attention outside a traditional classroom — kids on the autism spectrum, with learning disabilities or with trouble connecting to their peers. Kids like him.

Jonathan says Jorge played a significant part of his development as a child immigrant who couldn't speak English and needed help understanding his new reality.

"He already saw something deeper, and he was like, 'OK, let's help bring it out of you. Because you can be more,' " Jonathan says.

Their connection today has evolved from student and teacher to family. It's more like a "brotherhood."

"I would be a different person if I wouldn't have met him," Jorge says. "I am who I am, as well, because of him."

This segment aired on May 14, 2019.

Andrea Asuaje Reporter/Producer, Kind World
Andrea Asuaje was a reporter and producer in WBUR’s iLab, where she made Kind World.



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