Transforming Haiti, in C Major

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - March 4, 2013

Above: Port-au-Prince (CJ Photo)

By Alexander Britell

PORT-AU-PRINCE — “The impact is not only having a good orchestra — this is the least you can do. The big impact is changing minds.”

It could be an arpeggio, a chord, or even a single note.

But if Raoul Denis has his way, classical music will have a significant impact on the development of Haiti’s young generation.

Denis, himself a composer, cellist and pianist, is leading the new plan by Haiti’s government to create a national youth classical music system in the country.

The project, the brainchild of Haiti President Michel Martelly — himself a former musician — is modeled on Venezuela’s El Sistema, which was first launched in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu and has, for almost four decades, used classical music to change course for thousands of young people who might have otherwise fallen into crime, drugs and worse.

“The goal is to find children in poor conditions in the country and to teach them music,” Denis said. “With music, you reach directly the heart of people — and their way of thinking is different — it’s about discipline, compassion, responsibility — helping each other.”

It took almost two years for Haiti and Venezuela to finally put together the agreement on the plan.

Above: Pascale Denis de Moquete and Raoul Denis (CJ Photo)

Now, Haiti’s version, which is called the Institut National de Musique d’Haiti (the National Institute of Music), is set to begin operations in April, beginning with a four-hour, daily extracurricular schedule.

Joining Denis on the project is his sister Pascale, a teacher with her own music school in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, who helped launch that country’s El Sistema project for former President Leonel Fernandez in the early part of the 2000s.

The aim is to create a full-fledged classical music system, culminating in two youth orchestras: one for pre-kindergarten students and another for young adults.

But Denis stressed that the objectives stretched far beyond strings and bows.

“The visible goal is to build a symphonic national youth orchestra,” he said. “But it’s proven that this is good for lowering violence and building up the self-esteem of people — so this is a very good programme for that.”

For now, the programme is being broken down into four regions, with around 1,700 young musicians: two groups in greater Port-au-Prince — one of which will be in the Delmas area where Sean Penn’s J/P HRO organization works, the other with the existing Ecole de Musique Sainte Trinité —along with one in Jacmel and the largest of the four in Hinche.

Fledgling orchestras already exist at Sainte Trinite and in Jacmel, Denis said.

But it’s Hinche that will be the centrepiece of the project, where the government, with help from Father Francklin Armand, is developing what will eventually be the physical home of the National Institute.

There is, of course, one major question: in a country with a small classical music sector, just who will be able to teach 1,700 students?

For now, Venezuela will be sending over 22 music teachers to regularly visit Haiti.

Over the course of six extended visits, they will themselves choose from a group of 120 Haitians, aged 16 to 25, who will form the first group of local Haitian teachers.

Pascale puts it more bluntly.

“We don’t have any music teachers,” she says. “We’re going to find them — we’re going to ask many people to join us, and, after that, the Venezuelans will be there and they are going to choose the ones that really have the specific [skills] to be the teachers.”

That’s often been the practice in Venezuela, according to Rafael Rangel, who has been an administrator with El Sistema in Venezuela for five years and is providing Venezuela’s support for the programme in Haiti.

Above: Rafael Rangel (CJ Photo)

Most students and many teachers in the system, he said, begin as novices, knowing little to nothing about music.

“They just have to like music — they feel music inside, so you tell them ‘put the finger here,’ and soon they start to realize, ‘ok, this is a note, this note is right here in the script,'” he says.

It’s about developing the entire system from the ground up, with teachers and students learning together and creating a perpetual cycle of instruction.

“That’s the way to work, and it’s the safest way to keep the progress sustainable,” he says. “We are not going to fix it with only one teacher, a master, who deserves all the respect and the consideration.”

And he said he was also mindful not to impose a certain style on Haiti’s version of the programme.

“It’s very important that Haiti takes its own experience,” he said. “They can take the good things from the system in Venezuela and bring it to Haiti, but Haiti should transform it into its own way of doing things — their personality, their culture, that’s the idea.”

There’s also the issue of finding instruments. While part of the funding is coming from Venezuela, Denis said the institute was constantly in need of more instruments, in a country bereft of, for example, violin makers. (Although that could change, too, he said, with plans for a project to build instruments in Haiti).

While it is an ambitious project, Denis and the institute plan to have a full-fledged orchestra by the spring of 2013, chosen from the original group of 1,700.

That will culminate in an inaugural concert by Haiti’s new youth symphony orchestra, one which will reportedly include international star Manu Chao.

“We have one artistic objective — the orchestra,” Rangel said. “But the really important objective is the transformation in the children, who will begin to believe in the possibility of a different way to live — it’s not material wealth, it’s a spiritual richness — that’s the way we believe we can bring the transformation of the future generations here in Haiti.”

Rangel says he saw first-hand the impact El Sistema had on young people in Venezuela.

“I personally can say that I saw many, many, many lives saved from drugs — I saw children who grew up in broken families, involved in prostitution, drugs, and with circumstances completely against them,” he said. “We used to think, he’s going to finish like his mother or father — but no, through music, they find something very different.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the student ends up being a musician, a businessman, a doctor or ends up remaining in music at all.

“Maybe they don’t stay in music,” Rangel said. “But they use the music to shift the reality, and move it to a better future, a better perspective.”

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