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Popular musician reflects on world travels | Welcome Vashon interview
By JENN REIDEL
For The Beachcomber
Musician and songwriter Paul Colwell has been welcomed all over the world. He is a member of the country/bluegrass/world music band the Colwell Brothers, which his brother Steve started 65 years ago in California. As teenagers, Steve (guitar), Paul (mandolin, banjo and guitar) and Ralph (bass) signed with Columbia Records and were regulars on many radio and TV shows, performing with such country stars as Tex Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Little Jimmy Dickens.
Just as their careers began to take off in the early 1950s, the Colwell Brothers were invited by the MRA (Moral Re-Armament) to travel for a year and use their music as part of the organization’s conciliation work in post-war Europe and other parts of the globe. It was then that Colwell saw how music could be used to bring people together and to inspire change in the world. That first year turned into 12 years of traveling, which took the brothers to more than 50 countries on six continents, where they sang in 42 languages.
Upon his return to the United States. in the 1960s, times were changing. “There was much that needed to be taken down as well as lifted up, such as civil rights,” Colwell said.
In an effort to express a common humanity, he and his brother Ralph wrote the popular hit “Up With People,” and shortly thereafter the Colwells and their longtime colleague Herb Allen founded the international educational youth program of the same name. Paul coordinated the creation of the musical productions with as many as five casts of up to 700 young people traveling each year. This included several Super Bowl halftime shows. He still serves in an advisory capacity for the organization today.
Now in his 70s, Colwell continues to work with young people as a paraeducator at Vashon High School. He and his wife, artist Catalina Quinn Colwell, have brought students from all over the world to Vashon, where they have served as community representatives for several student exchange programs.
I recently sat down and talked with Colwell about his fascinating musical journey.
Jenn Reidel: As a traveling musician, you have been welcomed all over the world. Can you give us some perspective on what that was like?
Paul Colwell: We certainly were welcomed in country after country. In terms of someone going to another place, whether someone else’s home or someone else’s country, you go on the basis of wanting to learn something. Do not go on the basis of comparison, but on the basis of appreciation. That is very important.
We sang for the leaders of many countries. We felt that if we could influence the leaders, they could affect change in their countries where needed. And we sang in the remotest villages. We would write a song for each country we visited. Sometimes we had only two or three days to write the song and translate it into the language of the country we were going to. When you go to a foreign country, it is important to try to speak in their language if possible, or at least learn a few words in their dialects. It touches them when you show that kind of interest in their culture.
Tell me about some of the songs you wrote for the countries you visited.
The most profound experience for me was singing at the independence celebrations of the Congo in 1960. The song we wrote for the occasion, “Vive le Congo,” became the signature tune for the Congolese National Radio’s daily newscasts.
We were in the Congo when things were in turmoil. The United Nations was trying to bring stability. Once we were pulled over by a village militia who thought we were spies. We told them we were the Colwell Brothers. We were very well known in the country, you see, for we were doing radio shows every day. They did not believe us.
They took us to the village and demanded we sing our songs to prove we were the Colwell Brothers. Little kids packed around us so tight you could barely play your instrument. Luckily our singing convinced them, and then they welcomed us with wine and much celebration. The music was the magic.
You said a lot of the songs you wrote during your travels were lost because you didn’t have any recording equipment. So, in a sense, your songs were gifts to the people.
Yes, our songs were our thank you. Thanking them for their hospitality and friendship. We tried to get a feel for the spirit of the people and capture it in each song. We broke down barriers and built bridges of understanding. Music played a very powerful role in doing that.
— Jenn Reidel is a freelance web designer, fine art photographer and writer who lives on Vashon. To read more of her Welcome Vashon interviews, see www.welcomevashon.org.