Music is a key pillar of cultural expression in Haiti. Though it can seem like a different world, Haiti is less than 700 miles from Miami. Many Americans, if they think of Haiti at all, conjure images of disasters, but there is so much more to our neighbor to the south. Born in revolution, Haiti has a vibrant, multifaceted culture—a lively mix of African, French, and Latin influences—that combines with the immense creativity of its people to provide a solid foundation for the transformative power of music education and performance. In Haiti, music offers a potent source of hope and consolation, often in the face of dire circumstances.
This is a story about some talented kids, a deeply committed non-profit organization, dedicated community leaders, and a group of very generous colleagues.
In the mid 1980s I had the good fortune to study with cellist Raya Garbousova. In addition to her remarkable teaching, her living room was about the best place to meet cellists that I’ve ever known. Occasionally Rostropovitch or Starker or Isserlis would be visiting, and other times former students now playing professionally in orchestras or teaching would come back for a visit and some advice. One such was Janet Anthony, who at the time had recently accepted a position at Lawrence University in Wisconsin very near where I grew up. We met and a friendship was born.
Since 1996, Janet has spent all of her summers and other free time teaching music and organizing music programs in Haiti. She often enlists the help of college students, who travel to Haiti with her, and seems to always have at least one Haitian student living in her home. Recently I decided that it was about time that I do something to help her efforts, so this spring I made a request of my colleagues in the Utah Symphony for used musical supplies that could be of use to music students in Haiti. The response was wonderful, yielding a large suitcase filled with strings, tailpieces, mouthpieces, reeds, pegs, and mallets, to name a few.
One day in the musicians’ lounge while staring at the roster board and noticing the donation box filling to overflow, my friend Claude Halter turned to me and said in his French accent and dry humor, “someday I need to do something for someone other than myself.” Claude happens to know Janet from his studies so we began to muse on the idea of actually going to Haiti to help her. A kind of “I’ll go if you go” thing ensued and the idea was planted.
Not one to act impulsively on good ideas, I was content to let the notion of actually getting involved waft into the ether. But I mentioned it to my partner, violinist Yuki MacQueen. Seemingly in a matter of minutes we had plane tickets to Port au Prince for ourselves and for our oboist friend James Hall. On Yuki’s birthday this July, the three of us got on a plane and headed off to teach at the Holy Trinity Summer Music Camp outside of Port au Prince. This camp is partially supported by BLUME Haiti, the non-profit that Janet founded and of which she is currently President.
Having never visited a developing nation before, this trip left me with a deep appreciation for the Haitian people, for the volunteers like Janet and her friends, and for my life in the US. What we found was a group of beautiful kids being taught and cared for by remarkably dedicated volunteers. The living conditions at this particular camp were challenging for us, but the volunteers Janet has assembled worked tirelessly and with fortitude. Many of these terrific people serve on the BLUME Haiti Board in addition to volunteering in-country. Their commitment is clearly driven by the wonderful children whose contagious talent and excitement are hard to put into words.
After a little under a week at the camp teaching and performing for the students, the three of us got in a van and headed for Jacmel on the south coast. We knew we would have more comfortable accommodations in Jacmel, but it became clear within a few minutes of silence that everyone was missing the kids and the sense of purpose that they had filled us with. We did visit the Dessaix-Baptiste Music School in Jacmel for one day of teaching that confirmed to us the importance of our trip both for us as people and as practitioners of our art. We can’t all be doctors or nurses, but our art is desired and needed and that gives us the chance to make a difference.
After returning from Haiti, each of us realized the depth of the impact this trip had had on our own lives. The lens had changed and some things that seemed important before seemed less so now.
After pondering the trip for a few weeks I had another idea. I know a lot of people who know a lot about their art and their instruments. I had just met a lot of kids who would benefit tremendously from that knowledge. What if these two groups could meet and work together in Jacmel for a weeklong institute? I was excited by the idea, but I knew I needed help implementing it. Fortunately, Janet was entirely on board with the idea and promised that if I could get my colleagues there, she could organize the students and facilities through BLUME.
This all sounded good, but I really had no idea whether or not my friends would be interested. But it turned out that Yuki had been posting pictures and updates from Haiti and there was more than a little interest in our activities. My sales pitch to my colleagues went something like this, “How about using your relief week at the end of March to come with me to Haiti and teach kids there? It should only cost you around a thousand dollars!”
Probably the most meaningful thing to me regarding this whole project is the response I got to that question. Other than a couple of people who had conflicts, everyone said “Yes” (including Claude)! I asked people that had shown a particular interest in our Haiti trip, but I get the impression that if I had asked everyone in the orchestra, most would have jumped in. My hope is that this will be a recurring event so that anyone who would like to participate will have the opportunity.
Now we have a faculty representing every instrument in the orchestra (with the exception of harp, tuba, and piano). Since this group of 14 musicians is a significant percentage of the orchestra, I thought it wise to email our Music Director Thierry Fischer and inform him of our planned activities. I described the scope of the project, our efforts over the summer, and asked if he had any advice for us. I received a note that he would like to meet when he returned to Utah and that he was excited about the project! We had made a book of pictures of our trip with a large gathering of students on the cover. Thierry looked at the cover for quite a while and said, “I want to come along. I give to various charities but I want to come with you and give some of my time. I have to come from Warsaw on Monday, is it okay if I start a day or so late?” Yes maestro, it is very okay!
Knowing that this will cost money to house the students and faculty, I contacted a Utah Symphony and Opera Board member by the name of Joanne Shiebler. With her help we now have two fundraisers scheduled that have been announced and recommended to the entire board by both Maestro Fischer and our new CEO Paul Meecham. Our goal is to raise $20,000 to cover the room and board for the 80 or so students from outside Jacmel and the cost of transportation within Haiti and housing for the faculty from Utah. When everyone is being so generous with their time and travel expenses, a relatively small sum can go a long way.
The first Haitian National Orchestral Institute will take place in Jacmel, Haiti, from March 27–April 1, 2017. We will be bringing in 100 of the most dedicated music students from eight of Haiti’s ten Departments to study with members of the Utah Symphony and perform with Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer. Rehearsal and performance facilities are being provided by the Haitian Minister of Culture. The Dessaix-Baptiste Music School and BLUME Haiti will be administering the program. Special thanks to Janet Anthony for her tireless dedication.
Note: The Author is a member of the Utah Symphony