Three years after the earthquake that left the country in ruins, Haiti's government has an unlikely new remedy for poverty and crime: music education.
Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
After the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck southern Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees moved into tent camps around Port-au-Prince, the rubble-strewn capital city.
Flimsy cardboard walls turned soggy in the winter rains, conditions were dreary, and food and water were scarce. And these individuals were fortunate: 316,000 people died during the 35 seconds of terror – a devastating toll in a country hardened by rampant poverty, natural disasters, and political convulsions.
But one morning in late January, nearly three years ago, the worn-down survivors in one central tent city awoke to an unusual sound: Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" was playing somewhere in the camp, brassy funk blending incongruously with the stench of open sewers.
The source of the sound was the orchestra from the Holy Trinity Music School, the oldest and largest music school in Haiti. The musicians were affected by the earthquake, too, but after mourning their dead and refurbishing mangled instruments, they were eager to heal the best way they knew how: through music.
The impromptu concert underscored the leading role that music schools have taken on in Haitian social life and cultural identity. Since that tent city performance, the role of music in Haiti – particularly in the form of educational programs – has only expanded.
“I think people recognize the fact that music can help their children keep going in the right direction,” says Janet Anthony, a professor of music at Lawrence University who has been teaching music in Haiti since 1996. “There are more and more music schools springing up every day.”
In 1956, Sister Anne-Marie, the director of the Holy Trinity School, first started teaching music in Haiti. It was an unusual addition to the curriculum, which emphasized religious education and more practical lessons like basic reading and writing. But what began as a quirky pet project quickly expanded, drawing a mix of children from around Port-au-Prince and raising the profile of musical education. Students from the wealthy suburb of Petionville rubbed trombone-laden elbows with street kids from notorious slums like Cite Soleil.
David Cesar remembers the early days of the Holy Trinity Music School. As one of Sister Anne-Marie’s first students, he watched as she built the program. Mr. Cesar started playing music at the age of 3, and today is the school’s director and the conductor of Haiti’s National Philharmonic Orchestra. He estimates the music school’s enrollment at 1,200 students, up from 1,000 before the earthquake.
The daily schedule at Holy Trinity School promotes full immersion. Tom Clowes, a cello instructor who has spent the last several summers teaching there, describes the agenda: morning prayer, music theory class, ensemble rehearsal, individual music lessons, lunch, recess, practice time, dinner, more ensemble rehearsals, and, mercifully, bed time. The long hours build a strong community.
“It’s an important social network for the kids,” says Mr. Clowes.
The Haitian music school system has grown significantly over the past several years, spurred by both supply and demand. Families see the benefits of enrolling their children, and cultural institutions – primarily churches – are increasingly seeking high-quality musical performers, offering hope of a career for those who pursue musical studies.
Now, as Haiti continues to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake, the government is getting involved.
Raoul Denis is a well-known musician and a friend of President Michel Martelly, who is himself a former pop star known by his stage name “Sweet Micky.”
Several months ago, Mr. Denis received a phone call from President Martelly, who told him about a publicly funded musical education program in Venezuela called “El Sistema.” “He wanted to have something like this for the children of Haiti, in particular the poor children who have no other hope,” Denis says.
El Sistema enrolls approximately 400,000 children at any given time – most of whom come from poverty and violence – and is one of the few internationally lauded products of a government that doesn’t make friends easily. The program boasts higher school attendance, less crime, and better job prospects among its students. Graduates include internationally renowned musicians such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Gustavo Dudamel.
Martelly tapped Denis to lead the Institut National de Musique d'Haiti (INUMAH), an initiative modeled after El Sistema. The flagship campus – expected to open this month – will be located in Hinche, a city of roughly 50,000 on the central plateau, 70 miles from Port-au-Prince.
The site was chosen in part because it was largely untouched by the 2010 quake, thus retaining its infrastructure, says Denis. But there’s another pull: The region isn’t overpopulated, in line with the earthquake recovery plan’s call for decentralization.
Given the pervasive fundamental challenges facing Haiti – hundreds of thousands of people still living in “temporary” tent camps, rampant deforestation, and a lack of hygienic facilities that make the threat of disease outbreaks everpresent – an investment in orchestras and choirs may seem like an unaffordable luxury. The first year of the program – 2013 – is expected to cost $7 million, with subsequent years costing between $4 million and $5 million.
But proponents emphasize it’s not ultimately about the music. “It’s a social development program,” Denis says, “that uses music to help the kids have more confidence. It gives them notions of sharing, compassion, love, integrity.”
These may seem like speculative benefits, but a rigorous assessment of Venezuela’s El Sistema by the Inter-American Development Bank – which loaned the program $150 million to fund an expansion in 2007 – found something more tangible. The IDB calculated that lower crime and school dropout rates led to a 168 percent return on investment.
Nevertheless, Mariano Vales, the Music Program Coordinator at the Organization of American States (OAS), is looking to develop a sustainable funding model that could free up government money to provide basic services. “State funding in Venezuela can lean on oil money,” says Vales, “but in Haiti we need to find a counterpart outside of the government that would bring stability to the program.” The leading candidate is charitable – and primarily religious – organizations, which help operate the majority of Haitian educational institutions.
Ms. Anthony sees other reasons to push forward. “In Haitian society, there are so many initiatives that are started and never finished. It’s important to learn that you can start a project, work really hard at it, and finish it.”
Haiti's Carnaval des Fleurs, held last summer in late July, was a raucous affair. Thousands of people dressed in resplendent colors descended on Port-au-Prince, ready for a release, however temporary, from their daily struggles. Musicians and dancing spectators – the two groups became indistinguishable soon after the pulsing rhythms took hold – thronged the central boulevard, high-stepping by the ruins of the National Palace, which were shrouded in darkness.
Events like the Carnival and impromptu performances on street corners throughout the country underline the point that, to many Haitians, the institutionalization of music feels natural. “Music is a very big part of our lives,” says Cesar. “Whatever we are doing, we are doing it with music: joy, sadness, sorrow, and happiness.”
Bernadette Williams, who recently graduated from the Holy Trinity Music School, has lived through the full range of these emotions. Despite the years of struggle and loss, however, she says music remains a dependable constant. “The school is a place where we come together, like a family,” Ms. Williams says. “I can’t imagine my life without the school, without music. I hope I never stop playing.”