Michael Trotter was in the third grade of elementary school when he had the opportunity to learn to play the piano and he didn’t take it.
“My mom signed me up, but I took just one class and dropped out. The teacher was a very strict lady and I had other interests. I honestly thought at that time that I was going to become a rapper,” Trotter tells BBC Mundo.
The second opportunity presented itself to him more than a decade later, but this time he would have to be self-taught. Of course, he would learn in a palace in Baghdad and on a piano that had been owned by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
It was the year 2003 and Trotter was part of the US troops participating in the occupation of Iraq.
That experience would transform his life in many ways, it would leave him with significant physical, mental and emotional wounds, but it would also be the beginning of a musical career that is now on an upward trajectory.
Trotter is part, along with his wife Tanya Trotter, of The War and Treatya duo that with three albums to their credit has been forging their own place in the American music scene, which It has already earned him a performance in 2020 at the Grammy Awards and a nomination for the Academy of Country Music Awards this 2023.
And, to a large extent, this all began in a palace with a piano.
The “weakest link”
The first time that Trotter had contact with that Hussein piano was thanks to Robert Scheetz, one of the captains of his unit.
“He noticed the fear that I had when I arrived in Iraq. It’s not like going to Disney World. You go to war and from the moment you arrive you feel it. You can hear the gunshots, the explosions and you can even smell the loss of life,” Trotter says.
“Scheetz identified me as the weakest link, as the person who could die or get another killed.. He needed to get me out of my fear and in my profile he read that music was what freed me from anything. So, as he knew that in the palace where we had established our base there was a piano belonging to Saddam Hussein, he took me to the basement where he was, ”he adds.
It was a black upright piano. “Magnificent”, describes it as Trotter, who confesses that it was only a long time later -when he was able to play another piano- that he discovered how out of tune it was.
It was not easy to get to that basement. To do so you had to climb through rubble, bricks and ruins. One more reminder of the war in which he participated.
“When you think of a palace, you imagine how beautiful it was, but this was a bombed-out palace. So some of the walls were down, part of the roof was still open. And many parts were destroyed. So sometimes I had to step over, crawl or climb over rubble, just to get to this piano,” she says.
Following the advice of Scheetz, who invited him to use the piano “whenever he wanted to find his way back home,” Trotter went down to the basement every day for 15 months, trying to learn to play it.
looking for harmonies
The love of music runs in the family. His maternal grandmother plays the piano and all of her aunts sing gospel. So does his mother, whom he describes as a very devout Christian and whose religious fervor ended up marking Trotter’s love of music.
“I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where there were a plethora of radio stations offering all kinds of good things and a lot of bad. And my mom, to make sure that I didn’t get hooked the wrong way, made an arrangement on the radio at home so that it could only tune in to an AM station that during the day only talked about the Bible, but at night they played some good old songs. And honestly, that was what defined my taste in music.“he comments.
This is how he got to know the music of Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte or the Everly Brothers.
“They did not have a specific format. If it was good music, they would play it. I remember that on that radio I also heard a woman yelling “Sugar, sugar”. And I was wondering, who is she? (Celia Cruz). everything was very excitingrecalls Trotter.
Thus, when he had the opportunity to sit at that Hussein piano, although he did not know how to play it, Trotter was already hooked on music.
“I had always been able to hear the notes and could harmonize. So, I would go down there and try with one finger. My strategy was to find three notes on the piano. The harmony. I didn’t know they were called chords. I didn’t know any terms. And one of the songs I started with was Read On Mebecause it’s very easy to play on the piano”, says Trotter, who begins to hum this classic song by Bill Withers.
“So, all of a sudden, I was like ‘wow.’ This sounds great together. And I thought if I tried the same thing with my left hand as I did with my right, maybe I could find a way to play. And, before I knew it, I was developing my own style on this magnificent instrument,” she adds.
songs for funerals
Trotter enjoyed sitting at the piano every day, trying to learn how to play and compose, but it wasn’t until Captain Scheetz died during a mission that his relationship with that instrument took on its true dimension.
“I played and there were times when I felt that I had something good. But I lacked an emotional connection to the instrument, until he was killed, because then I had a new purpose, a new reason to learn to play. I wanted to honor him and my teammates. I wanted to connect with them and have a sense of healing. I think that his death unblocked me and allowed me to connect with the instrument and delve into writing”, he points out.
Trotter wrote his first song in honor of Scheetz and sang it for his companions at the funeral, a gesture that would ultimately turn his life upside down.
“Usually, during military funerals, soldiers are very stoic. They stay very controlled, but during this song, we didn’t. We break down, cry together and hug each other. And this would change my job, ”she says.
“My commander saw that moment. And he wanted to know if I wrote the song and how long it took me. I answered him and then he told me: ‘well, now this will be your job. You are going to write songs about the fallen and you are going to sing them at their funeral. ‘Cause that’s helping heal our boys and, in a weird way, it’s boosting my unit’s morale,” he adds.
music and healing
This new function would give a new meaning to his stay in Iraq.
When Trotter decided to enlist to go to war, he was trying to put his life in order. He was 20 years old and his girlfriend at the time had just gotten pregnant.
“I was determined to stop making horrible decisions. I was going to do something to make sure my daughter had a chance in her life and that I was going to be able to take care of her. So I joined the army because it meant free health insurance and I wouldn’t have to worry about rent or anything else more than food and the cell phone bill,” he says.
But, as he discovered when he first returned from Iraq, through music he had found more than material security there.
“The second time I enlisted to go to Iraq I did it by choice. When I returned home I felt very empty. I felt that nobody understood who I was anymore and that I was disoriented, without objectives. I felt that my work there was not finished and that I had to go back to my boys to help them heal, so I went back and stayed there until February 2007”, he comments.
During that second tour in Iraq, Trotter dedicated himself mainly to making music, but upon returning to the US he was once again disoriented.
“Mentally in Iraq I went through a lot because I was losing friends, brothers and sisters. I wasn’t dealing with my own healing. I was so focused on making sure I sing and make people happy and not on being happy myself,” she recounts.
He returned with both mental and physical injuries. She suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic anxiety, chronic depression, as well as leg injuries.
So, he was wandering around without a clear goal, trying to make sense of his life until in 2010 he met the actress and singer Tanya Blount (now Trotter), his current wife.
Together they formed a musical duo in 2014 which in 2017 they renamed as The War and Treatya name that nods to his life experience, but also to his conception of music as a healing tool.
“Love and music have kept me hopeful. And I think everyone deserves to feel this joy that I feel. For this reason, we do not include in our records or in our concerts any song that we do not feel, that does not move us, ”she indicates.
With a style of music that Trotter identifies as Americana, as it contains elements of blues, country, jazz, rock and roll, soul, R&B and gospel in its classic forms, the duo has entered the Billboard list of emerging artists this year.
However, the road up to here has not been easy nor has it been exempt from ups and downs. Including a severe crisis that occurred in September 2017, when Trotter was about to take his own life.
“I had stopped the medication. I was at a point in my life where I felt like nothing was working.. I had been fired from work. We had an eviction notice on the door of the house. They had repossessed my car for non-payment. I felt like I had hit rock bottom in the failure department. Depression and PTSD were high and I had decided that I was the problem, so I was going to get out of the way, ”he tells the artist.
“I was ready, but my wife identified the depression in me that day, and before I knew it, the police and paramedics were at my front door. She sat down next to me and said ‘I know you’re planning to kill yourself today, but I just need you to hang on for five more minutes. Give me five minutes to love you and make it all make sense.’ We both cried and I told him ok”, she comments.
“And I continue to live in those five minutes,” he concludes.
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