Most people say that traveling abroad “expands their horizons,” but for Berklee voice student Ratasha Huff, being in Athens is providing experiences that go well beyond the implications of that three-word cliché.

We sat down to talk in the café at Nakas conservatory and when I asked how it’s been studying abroad for a semester in Athens, she talked first, not about music, but about culture and politics. “I have a much better understanding of my country’s impact on the world—some in good ways and some not,” said Ratasha, who calls Charlotte, North Carolina her hometown. “I was already aware of this, but to be here and talk to people, do my own research, has really been an education.”

She said she was stunned when she first came to Athens because she wasn’t hearing the traditional Greek music in cafes, but instead, a lot of American pop music. “It was surprising and somewhat disappointing….having such a huge footprint and seeing how that translates politically. Learning about the U.S. perception has been really hard.” It was a realization that was clarified for her by seeing and hearing some anti-American commentary at November rallies a few blocks from where she’s staying.

Ratasha sings lead on a jazz standard during ensemble rehearsal. Rick's on guitar.

But don’t misunderstand—Ratasha sees even those moments as part of what has been a very positive and transformative all-around education in Athens. Some of her happiest moments of this semester abroad came in these past few days, in the interstitial moments between studying for and taking finals.

It all started Wednesday afternoon, when Rick, whose first instrument was drums, showed her some rudiments. They jammed for a while in an ensemble room in the Nakas basement. Then Ben showed up, and she watched while Rick and Ben switched from guitars to drums, bass, or piano. “I was so inspired by these multi-instrumentalists. I always wanted to try drums, so I did!”

Ratasha—who, by the way, has a very rich and powerful voice and showed great artistry and maturity when singing in ensembles this week—has been working at her new instrument long hours already, both alone and in a full ensemble with Rick and the two Stelioses (two local guys who play piano and bass and have been close friends with several of the Berklee students this term). To her new instrument, she is bringing a lot of force and a great sense of time.

“This feels completely different from singing,” she said. “It’s a whole new way of expressing myself.”

One other big positive about the Nakas experience: harmony class. Her teacher, Giannis Anninos, has taught a class with Ratasha as his only student, and the focused study has really helped her start to grasp the subject matter.

After Berklee, Ratasha hopes to lead her own jazz big band and write material for it. It looks to me like being in Athens will wind up looming large, having provided opportunities to develop the skill and confidence to take on challenges like that one.

Read more about the Athens trip:

Rob Hochschild
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