Haitian Music Nation: Forging Pathways with BLUME Haiti
Janet Anthony, cello professor emerita, Lawrence University; Cofounder/Executive Director, BLUME Haiti
Haiti has suffered a series of ongoing calamities in recent years: the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, years of unrest and a presidential assassination in July 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake combined with a tropical storm in August 2021, and an ongoing epidemic of kidnapping and gang violence. These hardships continue to be magnified in recent months.
Access to music education can be a potent antidote to despair for students and their teachers, families, and communities—one of the very few ways that people of vastly different social classes in Haiti can meet and interact as equals. As one of our scholarship participants stated, “music helps one become human.”
Since the 2010 earthquake, we have seen explosive growth of music programs throughout the country. From urban centers to rural outposts, parents and communities see music education as a way to orient their children away from gangs, violence, prostitution, and drugs, and towards building life skills and, for some, earning a livelihood in music.
From almost my first visit to Haiti in 1996 to my Lawrence University retirement in 2018, I brought university students with me—more than 70 students over the years. After the 2010 earthquake, former students and other volunteers encouraged me to start BLUME Haiti, a small organization that works to help strengthen the music education ecosystem throughout the country. Since 2012, we have partnered with music schools across Haiti to help young musicians, their teachers, and their communities use the transformative impact of music education to develop leadership skills, awaken individual potential, and create opportunities for civic collaboration and economic development, through the shared pursuit of musical excellence.
Having recently made two short visits to Haiti, my first since March 2020, I am happy to report that despite all odds, most of our more than fifty partner programs are functioning at fairly normal levels: concerts and recitals are taking place; kids are getting lessons; theory classes are ongoing; instruments are being repaired. It’s a marvel to behold!
We continue our Covid pivot, with extensive online learning opportunities on subjects such as band instrument repair, music theory, instrumental and vocal pedagogy, and more. These offerings have stimulated a great deal of interest across the country.
At a recent board retreat, we invited the directors of two music schools to speak to us and shed light on the daily battle many face to keep their music programs functioning. It was gratifying to find that our support aligns closely with the goals they identified as most important: salary support, professional development, instruments, instrument “doctors” (repair technicians), and archives—with a focus on maintaining and bringing to wider awareness the long and wonderful history of Haitian art music.
Thanks to our long-term partnership with Luthiers without Borders (U.K. branch), there are now four highly professional luthiers in Haiti, and most string programs have access to someone able to maintain their stock of instruments. Because of the generosity and foresight of a number of supporters—the Rotary Club of Naperville, Illinois; Music Fund, in Belgium; and many individuals—we were able to start a Band Instrument Repair Program in September 2021.
We have hired a Haitian repair technician trained by Music Fund, first in Cap Haitian and then as an apprentice in Belgium. Herold Jean Pierre, an excellent teacher, has developed four training modules that he will deliver across the country. By the end of April, he will have worked with about 120 workshop participants from 66 programs in each of Haiti’s ten provinces. We envision three main centers of band instrument repair with excellent capacity in terms of human resources and materials: in the capital of Port-au-Prince, the south (Jacmel), and the north (Cap Haitian). We also hope to provide all the participating programs with a “starter kit” of repair tools and supplies, so that band directors do not have to travel for minor repairs on instruments that are in constant use.
Finally, we are dedicated to bringing musicians together. Pre-Covid, our support for national summer camps enabled participants to realize that they were part of a cohort of people passionate about the same things. Our work with the musicians of the Utah Symphony led to the creation of the Haitian Orchestra Institute (HOI), an extraordinary addition to the fabric of musical life in Haiti that brings a hundred of the country’s most accomplished classically trained musicians together with Utah Symphony musicians and their maestro, Thierry Fischer, for a week of intensive work. This has created a group of musicians from all social and economic backgrounds who have the shared experience of working together to achieve a result that inspires people both within and outside of Haiti. In a country where so many things are left half-finished, where so many things go wrong, this is definitely going right!
Even in this time of Covid, we have seen the excitement that comes from people making connections and creating community with others across the country. Internet access in Haiti is not a given; indeed, there is very little regular electricity in most parts of the country. People plan carefully to have their phones charged for a Zoom class—but if it rains…all bets are off. Despite these issues, it is exciting to see connections being made in the online groups we have facilitated.
Music schools often function as safe harbors in chaotic environments. It has always been inspiring and humbling to see the lengths to which people will go to get to their music schools. As another scholarship recipient told me: “The sun rises every day…we must continue to live, no matter what.” It is our honor and privilege to accompany music programs throughout Haiti as they work every day to build better lives for their students, staff, families, and communities through music education.