Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Students from Cornell University and the Holy Trinity School of Music (Port-au-Prince, January 2019)

In addition to making music, the CU Wind Symphony leverages music toward cultural exchange, service, and global awareness by embarking on non-traditional performance tours.  In doing so, students learn the value of applying their discipline’s knowledge base to address cultural and societal issues.  They gain skills in communication, leadership, and collaboration, and employ those skills to engage more broadly and deeply as members of a global community.  

The Wind Symphony traveled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2017 and 2019, and visited the cities of Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien, Jacmel, Santo Domingo, and Punta Cana. Students prepared for the tours throughout the preceding semesters, with the goals of deepening their learning experiences, increasing their opportunities to develop lasting friendships with their new friends, and informing their post-tour reflection.  Activities included history and culture lessons, brief assigned readings, and group discussions led by a representative of Engaged Cornell.

The Holy Trinity School of Music, Cornell’s partner institution in Port-au-Prince, has a story that is particularly poignant: The school moved into a new four-story building in November, 2009; with its performance hall, practice rooms, and teaching studios, it was no different than most music schools in the U.S.  The building was completely demolished two months later in the earthquake that ravaged the city.  Plans are underway to purchase new land and rebuild, but for now the school and its 1,500 students are housed in the temporary facility constructed in 2011. 

Holy Trinity Music School staff salvaging instruments from the wreckage (Port-au-Prince, February 2010)

In working with the members of the Holy Trinity School of Music, Cornellians have learned about the devastating effects of the earthquake through first-hand accounts. Impersonal statistics have been replaced by personal remembrances of lost friends and loved ones. One of the concert organizers contextualized the earthquake by telling students that both his parents had been killed. A student later wrote, “As I tried to place myself in his shoes I had a hard time staying in the moment and shifted my thoughts away. The shock I personally experienced was temporary, but so many Haitians live on with these permanent losses. I truly admire their efforts to rebuild the country.”

The School operates weekday afternoons and Saturdays, and includes various beginner, intermediate, and advanced bands, orchestras, and chamber ensembles.  Les Petits Chanteurs boys’ choir has become particularly well known through seven United States performances tours; their most recent tour included a performance in Ithaca in October, 2017.

In 2017 the Wind Symphony was joined by members of the Yale Concert Band, directed by Thomas Duffy, and along with Holy Trinity musicians we performed as part of the 2017 Earthquake Commemoration, which was held at the Kiosk Occide Jeanty in downtown Port-au-Prince.  We then traveled north to Cap-Haïtien, where we had the honor of performing at the Sans-Souci Palace. Approximately 17 miles south of Cap-Haïtien and five miles uphill from the town of Milot, the Palace was constructed in 1810-1813 by Henri Christoph, a key leader during the Haitian slave revolt.   

Along with the nearby Citadelle Laferrière, the Palace was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site in 1982. The Citadelle is one of the largest fortresses in the Americas, built in the early 19th century to protect the newly independent nation against possible invasion.

Even under the best circumstances, getting from one place to another in Haiti is at times extremely difficult.  Cities have no municipal public transportation systems, and the occasional functioning traffic signals are cause for celebration.  All of this means that very few events in Haiti start on time.  Something as simple as traveling to a performance can become its own adventure.  Due to snarled traffic, when we finally arrived at the Sans-Souci Palace we were more than two hours late for our own performance.  We were amazed to find that the palace was still bathed in light and hundreds of people remained.  In order to keep the concert going in our absence, the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra had played the same pieces multiple times. The concert organizers had enlisted the talents of local performers (apparently including a fire-swallowing act I’m sorry to have missed) – all through a light but steady rain. As we arrived and literally ran to the stage, the audience burst into applause. Despite the delay, the performance went beautifully.

Cornell University Wind Symphony & Holy Trinity School of Music Philharmonic Orchestra
(Sans-Souci Palace, January 2017)

After spending four days in Haiti, we traveled to Santo Domingo for a partnership with the Carol Morgan School Bands, directed by Cody Gifford. Our two-day visit included side-by-side experiences, masterclasses, and a public performance with the high school band.

An even more disordered atmosphere in Haiti greeted the Wind Symphony on our second tour in 2019. Recent scandals had further stressed a fragile infrastructure, creating increased political instability and civil unrest.  Moreover, the U.S. government shutdown prohibited the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Haiti from hosting our scheduled concert.  We replaced that performance with one at the University of the Aristide Foundation in Port-au-Prince as part of a ceremony remembering friends and family members who died in the 2010 earthquake.  We met and interacted with Mildred Trouillot-Aristide and Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, in our small way, helped our Haitian friends honor those who died nine years earlier in the devastating earthquake. 

One student later wrote, “I was confused at this afternoon’s university concert when we began playing Julie Giroux’s Hymn for the Innocent while a lady was speaking in French at the podium. Were we interrupting her? But then my heart broke when she started listing the names of university students’ friends and family members who passed away in the 2010 earthquake. I fought back tears at the timpani as I noticed the procession of students holding white carnations. They walked down the center aisle of the auditorium and placed them in a glass vase at the front. A tribute to lives lost…This moment was poignant and intimate all at once. It is so easy to be detached when people are hit by a natural disaster that does not directly affect us. t is so hard to fathom the weight of the aftermath – destroyed buildings, lives torn apart, ineffable grief and loss. But experiences like today bring context to tragedy…and invite us to contemplate and respect others’ pain.”

Memorial Ceremony at the University of the Aristide Foundation
(Port-au-Prince, January 2019)

Following our performances in Port-au-Prince, the Wind Symphony traveled to the lovely coastal city of Jacmel for a combined performance with members with the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra and Choirs.  

Holy Trinity School of Music Philharmonic Orchestra
(Jacmel, January 2019)
Members of the Wind Symphony clarinet section
(Jacmel, January 2019)

During our travel from Jacmel to Port-au-Prince, we stopped for a performance at Saint Etienne Episcopal Church.

Cornell Wind Symphony
(Saint Etienne Episcopal Church, Buteau, Haiti, January 2019)

In addition to the Wind Symphony’s experiences in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, we invite artists and musicians from those countries to Cornell.  In October we welcomed RAM to Ithaca for a two-day campus residency.  RAM is a nine-piece band based in Port-au-Prince that plays mizik rasin, “roots music,” which mixes the African-based rhythms of Vodou and Rara with American rock.  RAM plays every Thursday night to a packed house at Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. 

We were also joined by Elena Guzman, PhD candidate in the department of Anthropology, who discussed her fieldwork with a Rara band in Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti, and the socio-political context of Rara in the community.  

RAM with Elena Guzman (fifth from left) and James Spinazzola (second from left)
(Lincoln Hall, Cornell University, October 2018)

RAM’s Rara workshop on the CU Arts Quad was a highlight of the event. 

Through all the activities described above, members of the CU Wind Symphony explore music as a vehicle to overcome cultural and language barriers, cut through superficial differences, and foster a culture that is inclusive and respectful. Music is capable of building bridges, of illuminating commonalities rather than differences, of helping us understand each other and develop a more informed and empathetic worldview.  The Wind Symphony wishes to thank the following individuals and institutions for their early and consistent support of our service-learning tours.

  • Ronni Lacroute, ‘66
  • L’Ecole de Musique Sainte Trinité; The Rev. David César, director
  • The Rev. Stephen Davenport
  • The Rev. Tracy Bruce
  • Patrick Delatour, Former Haitian Minister of Tourism
  • Carol Morgan School, Santo Domingo
  • Cornell Department of Music
  • Engaged Cornell

Additional Photos

Member Reflections

Click here to see reflections written by the members of the CU Wind Symphony.

Costa Rica, 2006-2014

CU Winds traveled to Costa Rica every two years from 2006 to 2014, teaching, performing, and donating instruments in communities such as Matapalo in Guanacaste, San Isidro, Desamparados, Limon, and Poas. On our 2014 tour we also went to David, Panama. Through these experiences, CU Winds gained a great appreciation for the service that can be done through music, and the ability it has to foster international connections. Learn about our time in Costa Rica here.