We played concerts of commemoration, peace, and reconciliation, but the word that dominated my thoughts in Haiti was hope. Up until this past semester, hope found relaxed usage in my life. “Hope I did well on that exam,” “hope I find my lost sunglasses” (spoiler: I haven’t), “hope you feel better.” The Oxford English Dictionary (I’ve learned at Cornell to always cite the OED) tells me hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen,” which makes it seem both internal and small-scale. However, I took a class this past semester with a large focus on indigenous communities and the obstacles they face to continue their way of life. Granted, this isn’t exactly related, but we spent some time framing the communities’ artwork as acts of hope, which initially seemed out of place. As I stared at the works of art in the basement of the Johnson, though, I began to understand that these artists were engaging with the concept of hope in a much larger context. Rather than individual hopes for specific events, the works represented hope that their communities and their ways of life would continue on, and moreover, that they would thrive. And this is where I found the connection to Haiti; throughout our travels and music-making, from the rehearsal space in a church, to the steps of Sans-Souci, and the many mountains we traversed, I felt a sense of hope from all our Haitian collaborators. Hope that through the pursuit of music, they could make lasting contributions to their communities, and that their country could recover from all its recent strife.
I recall some ensemble members feeling out of place on our trip for almost this same reason, being unsure of the purpose of music against, say, the destruction of an earthquake. Feeling, perhaps, that our work was superficial. I think without the context of the Haitian musicians, this would be exactly true. Were we to just play a concert at Sans-Souci on our own, well, I’d feel more than a little weird. But luckily our tour was about more than just performing; our director kept using the phrase “true cultural exchange” in describing the trip. At first I thought this would occur through our different genres of music, the delicious meals we shared, and the broken conversations mediated by Google Translate. But after sitting on a bus for too many hours, arriving at the Palace hours late for a concert we ourselves were a part of, and seeing that the music making of others there hadn’t even slowed? I realized that the larger form of cultural exchange was understanding the hope that they foster through music. It was evident in both the love with which they perform and the gratitude their director, Father Cesar, expressed after both performances.
Reflecting on this aspect of our exchange, one is lead to wonder exactly how much culture was exchanged in the other direction. Sure, our presence helped the concerts happen, but that’s not really interpersonal connection. However, I’m not sure if the question can totally be answered at this point. It was difficult to not compare our Haiti tour to another service-learning tour I took with CU Winds my freshman year, to Costa Rica. Only four of our current members were also on that trip, so along with this being the organization’s first time to Haiti, it was also many members’ first times doing something like this. Stepping back from the details of concerts played, or home-stays had, or quantity of rice & beans consumed, the most striking distinction was in what it meant to be on a fifth tour versus a first tour. That is, the partnerships we had in Costa Rica had been built over the course of five visits there, and I was there only at the tail end to bear witness to what was made possible by the work put in over the prior decade.
In Haiti, however, there was evidence left and right that none of us had travelled with a 50+ person group there before. Our director had gone down multiple times in advance to work out logistics, but, as we soon found out, that didn’t prepare us for the, erm, less expected details. And honestly, I was totally fine with that. More than accepting — and knowing from Costa Rica — that many times you just have to go with the flow, I embraced the rough patches. See, I’m the CU Winds president, so while I didn’t have a hand in organizing the tour, I had a hand in managing the people in the ensemble. I went in with the mindset that I would feel fulfilled if everyone else on the trip did, and that my job was working with James to ensure that was possible. To that end, I saw every slip up as a future improvement to the CU Winds Haiti tour. Because everything that went wrong this time is something that will be smoothed out in the future, and the bumps in the tour (both literally — ahem, mountains — and logistically) have given me hope (yes, I’m using that word purposefully) that the connections we made this first time around will flower into a long lasting partnership between CU Winds and the Holy Trinity Music School.
So why did I suddenly jump ship on the cultural exchange question and start comparing Haiti to Costa Rica? In Costa Rica the organization of the trip allowed us to run master classes with students all over the country, and play many concerts where we had the time to appreciate the joy on the faces of those we played for. I think this is where the exchange in the other direction happened. I look forward to future trips to Haiti where more of this can take place, and Cornellians aren’t left wondering about the transience of our experience. Maybe it’s pessimistic to say that the benefit of parts of our trip is that they won’t happen again, but I for one am glad to have been a presidential guinea pig.
–Jonathan Karsch, tenor saxophone