The music fades for Haitians


Training: Haiti has only one school for musically inclined children. But its work is threatened as the country's instability undermines a once-flourishing link with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

July 15, 2000|By John Donnelly | John Donnelly,BOSTON GLOBE

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Along a narrow concrete alley, where people live jammed together under tin roofs, a skinny young girl in pigtails sat in her front entryway and tucked a viola under her chin.

The girl, Debora Tatgrin, played the instrument as if it were an extension of herself, the long fingers of her left hand skipping over its neck, performing Bach for neighborhood residents.

Children on tiptoe appeared. They listened, eyes wide. Beneath them, trickles of filthy water flowed unnoticed past their feet.

When she finished, no one clapped. They only stared.

"I feel so good when I play," said Debora, 11, holding the viola to her chest. "In my mind, nothing else matters when I'm playing."

But the gift of music, handed to Debora when she turned 7, may run out for other Haitians.

Her school, Haiti's only school of music, which has had a long relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is going through extraordinarily hard times. Its decay is emblematic of the decline of institutions throughout Haiti that withered to nearly nothing during the 1991-1994 military government and have yet to find new life in a barely functioning democracy.

Yet it is hard to give up hope in certain corners of this country, such as the alleyway outside Debora's home or the halls of Holy Trinity School, which resound every day with scratchy bows on violins and the bellowing of horns - most of the instruments stamped with the insignia of the school's chief benefactor, the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

"Music to Haitians is a real necessity," said David Cesar, the school's director, walking in a hallway. "We play music all the time. When we're happy. When we're sad. It doesn't matter. But people in the United States see little of this part of Haiti. They never hear about our music. They rarely hear about our art. They hear only bad things about Haiti, about violence and lawlessness."

Such is not the case for the school's donors, many of whom are from the Boston area.

The relationship began with a knock on the symphony's door in 1973.

"There was a nun to see me," said Bill Moyer, then the BSO's personnel director, referring to Holy Trinity's founder, Sister Anne Marie of the Episcopal Society of St. Margaret. "She came in with her black robes and said, `I wonder if you'd like to give any instruments to our school in Haiti.'"

After learning about the school, Moyer suggested setting up a partnership. Perhaps, he said, the Boston orchestra could send teachers to Port-au-Prince for weeklong tutorials - if the school would feed them and provide beds. Sister Anne Marie agreed, and the relationship was born.

"Lots of BSO players went down during their vacation weeks to teach, and they came back totally turned on and refreshed by the spirit this school gave, I guess, to tired musicians," said Moyer, 70 and now retired.

The BSO invited Haitian musicians to its summer getaway at Tanglewood. In 1976 and 1984, the 70-member Holy Trinity Philarmonic Orchestra, Haiti's only orchestra, took up summer residence at Tanglewood and played to appreciative crowds.

"They were a very uneven talent, but they had a beautiful spirit," Moyer said. "They played scratchy, but it was wonderful. Many were kids. The assistant concert master, Romel Joseph, was blind, and he played fantastic. Audiences loved them."

But beginning in 1986, when Haiti ushered out the Duvalier dictatorship, the country turned sporadically violent. The musician exchanges between Boston and Port-au-Prince nearly stopped.

When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power in 1994, the friends of Holy Trinity began to raise money for the school. During the next three years, they collected more than $100,000, as well as dozens of instruments.

Sister Anne Marie died in 1996. Since then, the school has struggled, Moyer said. The money was put into a New York bank, where it remains.

Some BSO musicians have gone to the school in the past few years, but Moyer said most return discouraged. "There isn't the lively spirit the school used to have," he said.

During the same period, donors stopped giving. Teachers are taking second and third jobs because of low wages. Most students, after spending days in overcrowded classrooms, must leave their instruments at school because of rising rates of theft.

Haiti's Episcopal Bishop Zache Duracin, who oversees the Port-au-Prince school, is to meet with Moyer and other U.S. supporters in New York to chart Holy Trinity's future. The bishop's goal is for the school to become autonomous and seek funds from Haitian individuals and groups, instead of relying on foreigners.

That, too, has become a theme for Haiti's organizations, which are being forced to cope more and more without outside assistance.

"This is one of those beautiful efforts that has simply got to succeed," Moyer said. "There are too many great little kids down there."

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