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Arts & Life

Retirees In Mission, Kansas, Who Could 'Count To Four' Started A Samba Band During COVID Isolation

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Anne Kniggendorf
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KCUR 89.3
Retired biology teacher Dean Jernigan directs the We’re Not Dead Yet MissionSquare Meerkat Samba Band.

The MissionSquare Retirement community is now home to a samba band orchestrated by a retired biology teacher who has used the music to unite fellow residents.

Samba music is nothing new to retired biology teacher Dean Jernigan. He fell in love with the music decades ago at a Country Club Plaza Earth Day celebration and used it in his teaching at the Shawnee Mission South High School environmental science lab and as director of Union Station’s Science City.

“Samba became part of the entire experience, because samba comes from making sounds like the rain forest. Like the rattle of the rain and that type of thing,” Jernigan says.

Now a resident at MissionSquare Retirement, he decided those sounds might provide an escape from the pandemic doldrums and recruited some other residents for a Samba band he started.

"We were all going out of our minds," Jernigan says. "Things around here were very, very stringent. No kids, no grandkids, couldn’t see anybody, couldn’t go out.”

Jernigan stands in the facility’s parking garage before the 16 members of the We’re Not Dead Yet Mission Square Meerkat Samba Band. One of the percussionists puts in his two cents about the isolation and sings out, “Bo-ring!”

Last summer, Jernigan went online and ordered drums, whistles, rattles, and all manner of shakers.

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Anne Kniggendorf
Meerkat steel drummers from left: Mel Minnis, Pat Milburn, and Donna Severance.

Some members, like Ginny Cuppage, are lifelong musicians and jumped at the chance to play.

“I enjoy it because I play handbells, and handbells are a percussion instrument, and I figured if I can keep up with a choir of 20, I can keep up with these guys,” Cuppage says.

She played in a church bell choir for 30 years until COVID put a stop to it.

The same was true for Terry Mai. He’d spent 20 years performing with a band from his church.

“Then Dean invited me to participate, and it’s filled a big gap for me. It’s been great,” Mai says.

But others just needed something to laugh about, something to do.

“One thing about it,” Jernigan says, “when you have a samba band, anybody can join in if they can count to four, and that’s one of the things I ask them.”

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Anne Kniggendorf
Band director Dean Jernigan listed the band's instruments on a white board.

He pulls out a white board filled with the names of instruments and offers a demo. One by one, he samples the sounds: the pan drums, maracas, and clave. The booming repinique, congas, and timbale.

Then there’s the Brazilian friction drum called a cuica. It looks like a drum, but the player moves a stick fixed to the drumhead to produce an unusual sound.

“The cuica is derived from a jaguar call,” Jernigan explains.

Isolated but connected

MissionSquare’s executive director Vicki Hutchens stands near the garage’s elevator watching. She says the group has been a wonderful addition to the home and is the first band of any kind. She says the residents often mine their histories for activities, especially in the past year and a half.

“They just get together on a Friday night and have a glass of wine and start thinking of stuff to do,” Hutchens says.

The band has recently begun playing gigs out in the community, mostly outdoor events like Harvesters food pick-ups in a nearby high school parking lot or sidewalk sales, which Hutchens posts on the home’s Facebook page.

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Anne Kniggendorf
MissionSquare director Vicki Hutchens and Manfred the Meerkat, the band's mascot.

And everywhere the Meerkats go, their mascot follows. The mascot is a six-foot-tall mannequin wearing a rubber meerkat head and paws and dressed in a navy double-breasted suit and fedora. A monocle completes the look.

Manfred, as he’s called, lives in a breakroom storage closet.

Cuppage says, “It’s rather scary,” and her bandmates laugh.

Jernigan argues that he’s not scary, just debonaire, aloof.

Cuppage counters, “That’s a dangerous kind of guy,” and everyone laughs again.

But a meerkat doesn’t really fit the rainforest theme. Jernigan explains they chose him because meerkats work together as a family.

“They run in a bunch. They help each other, and that’s the way they are able to survive; they lean on one another, and they do things together,” Jernigan says.

Just like the residents at MissionSquare.

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