From the moment we left the airport, it was immediately obvious that our collective identity as a group stood out among the Haitian population. We were all pretty flustered and confused, trying to stay together, not knowing where we were going or understanding the French and Creole that was being shouted all around us. I didn’t even realize it until later but the Haitians even closed the entrance to the airport so that our group could exit more quickly. As we walked out of the airport, traffic stopped to let us through and people went out of their way to try to carry our bags in hopes of earning a tip. As soon as we were riding down the street in the bus, we noticed that we were catching the eyes of many people on the street. We weren’t getting glares or negative looks, just inquisitive looks, as a large bus full of light-skinned people drove by. Eventually we got to our relatively touristy hotel, and the whole trip we never spent more than a few seconds at a time on the street. Our American identity and privilege couldn’t have been more evident.
Once we started meeting and playing with the Haitian band though, the experience was completely different. Music can be a unifying force between people of different cultures and languages, and that force was clearly at play. The Haitians were welcoming, friendly, and for a moment you could even forget that we were two bands from very different cultures. The languages and backgrounds were different, but the enjoyment of music and technical aspects of playing in a band were the same. I had the opportunity to work with a Haitian who had been playing saxophone for two years, and it was amazing how much we were able to accomplish, even with my very basic level of French. Music really can be a language of its own.
The experience in the Dominican was quite different. Even outside of the wealthy area of the city we stayed in, we didn’t attract the same kind of attention that we did in Haiti. In Santo Domingo, we stayed with families in areas that were basically the same as a city in the US. Almost everybody in the school spoke English flawlessly. It was quite a stark contrast to Haiti and in the DR I felt that our identity as Americans almost made us even more welcome. It was surprising that ironically, we never had the same kind of personal connection with many of the DR students as we did with the Haitians. A contributing factor was probably that many of the students were quite young, but admittedly the dedication to Music among the Haitians was greater. That really gets you wondering whether Music can be an even more-powerful tool of communication than English.
I wouldn’t say my identity changed drastically over the trip, other than an increased awareness about a lot of the very basic infrastructure and aspects of life that we take for granted in the US. Things you generally don’t even think about like street lights, trash collection, safe water, air quality, and availability of roads are all in short supply in Haiti. Some of the people we talked to in Haiti and many in the DR also mentioned that they either traveled to the US often, or planned to go there for college – something that reminds you of your privilege as an American.
-Ray Beck, saxophone