I come from down your way

Jazz pianist and Award holder Thompson Egbo-Egbo

Thompson Egbo-Egbo grew up in Regent Park, Toronto, a low income, high crime neighbourhood. Regent Park was one of two communities chosen by the municipal authority in 1997 to trial The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award to young people considered at risk.

Thompson, now a professional jazz pianist, was one of 20 who took part in the project and today he supports young musicians growing up in tough communities.

Having moved from Nigeria to Canada when he was four, Thompson found his surroundings difficult to adapt to. Here he explains how music lessons and a chance encounter with the Award enabled him to discover his true talents.

Finding the music that you love

“I don’t have many memories of Nigeria; most of my memories start in Toronto. I remember that I had problems settling in and I started to get into trouble at school. My Kindergarten teacher thought that I was disruptive; I wouldn’t ever sit still and I had problems concentrating. She suggested to my mom that perhaps I needed some medication to calm me down because I was hyperactive. My mom was really uncomfortable with this and didn’t think this was the right thing to do. She met someone who told her that there was probably nothing wrong with me and that I just needed some other activity to focus my attention. That’s when she discovered Dixon Hall Music School and so I started playing piano.

“I started playing so young that I don’t really remember not playing. In everything that I’ve done, whether at school or taking part in the Award, playing piano has been intertwined with that and for me it has opened up all the doors I have been able to walk through. Everything I have accomplished has been a direct result of my music.

“I got involved with the Award by accident. Some representatives from the Award in Canada and volunteers from the local Fire Department came to visit my neighbourhood to see if kids there would like to take part. The neighbourhood that I grew up in, at the time, was all low income housing and most of the residents were living at or below the poverty line. There was a pretty diverse mix of people, from new immigrants to the country to people who had fallen on hard times and, as with many neighbourhoods like this, there was a lot of crime and drugs.

Building character

“The Award was offered to young people as a way to get involved in positive, meaningful activities. It provided kids an opportunity to get out of the neighbourhood. Everyone is going to take something different from the Award but I think it remains extremely relevant for young people today. There is still a need for young people to grow and build character; I think there is always a place for the Award, regardless of your background and where you start from.

“I have learned a lot from the Award and I feel very fortunate to have had a very close relationship with the Award in Canada. Because I started the Award so young, I’ve made many close friends, both participants and leaders who are still in my life now and have helped me in so many ways. When I applied to Berklee Music College in Boston, lots of people helped me to raise the funds to go.

Laying a foundation

“One of the things that the Award inspired me to do was to start my own music foundation – The Egbo Arts Foundation. The idea began when doing my Bronze Level.  My Foundation is really just an extension of the skills and values that I developed taking part in the Award and the relationships I made.  I see the Award as an investment in social infrastructures and an investment in young people to build a better community around them and this is something I am trying to achieve with my Foundation.”

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