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Fiddler and his band to bring bluegrass to Africa

SYCAMORE – Dan Andree took up playing the fiddle almost by accident, but mastering the string instrument style has led to a 28-day trip to Africa. 

Andree, 26, who was raised in Sycamore, was attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when he came across two men playing a mandolin and a guitar. He said he fancied himself a fiddler after being exposed to bluegrass music. 

“Hey, you guys need a fiddle player?” Andree remembers asking them. 

His offhand comment led to him becoming part of a bluegrass band called the Corn Desert Ramblers.

Andree had been a classically trained violinist starting at age 6, when his mother, Andi Andree, said she introduced her son to the violin by taking him to a teacher who was offering violin lessons using the Suzuki method.

The method helps children learn to play music by listening to it, similar to how people learn languages by listening to them intensively, she said. Even at a young age, she could tell playing music and performing was something her son wanted to do with his life. 

“He always had music in his heart,” she said. “I just knew that as a parent.” 

She said she made him practice every day and would even wake him before the school bus came to make him practice. During the summer she would sign him up for lessons to sharpen his skills. Andi Andree said she doesn’t have a musical background, but she played an active role in Dan’s musical development. She said she remains his biggest fan. 

“Now he’s got a ton of fans, but I believe I’m No. 1,” she said.

One of Andree’s teachers growing up was Ann Montzka-Smelser, who taught him how to play the violin at age 6. Now Montzka-Smelser is the director of Northern Illinois University’s Suzuki Strings Program.

The six years spent with the Corn Desert Ramblers introduced Andree to the bluegrass style of music. He later joined a new group, the Henhouse Prowlers, with whom he plays at clubs in Chicago, he said. While the band plays bluegrass music, they also try to make it more progressive. 

“We just try to honor the fathers of bluegrass while still adding our own flavor to it,” he said. 

On Tuesday, Andree and his bandmates leave for Africa as part of the American Music Abroad program hosted by American Voices. They will visit countries such as Liberia and the Republic of the Congo. Andree said his was one of a handful of bands chosen to be cultural ambassadors. 

Many of the people he expects to encounter may not even have heard of the term bluegrass. 

“I’m just trying to keep an open mind and go without any preconceptions,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to go to places that many people don’t have a chance to go to. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip.” 

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