Something Old, Something New

It’s hard to believe that just a week ago, we were still at home, enjoying the last few days of winter break proper. Since then, we’ve battled cold and wind in Ithaca to rehearse, flown to Haiti, and gone on many bus rides through the bustling streets of Port-au-Prince. We’ve performed at schools, rehearsed with our collaborators at the Holy Trinity School of Music, enjoyed local cuisine, and bonded with fellow band members. 

As one of the members who travelled to Haiti in 2017, I cannot help comparing the past three days to the last time we were here. My experience so far reminds me of the title of our first concert of the past semester. Something Old, Something New. I’ve made plenty of connections to this theme. There are many band members with me now who were here last time, but also many new faces. I’m here as a percussionist instead of as a flutist. We’re staying at the same hotel – the beautiful and whimsical Hotel Oloffson – in Port-au-Prince for the first leg of our trip. But soon we’ll be traveling to a new place – Jacmel – instead of Cap-Haïtien. Our plans have gone much more smoothly (remember being three hours late to our own concert at the Sans Souci Palace?). 

On Sunday night, before any of this began, I reread my journal entries from January 2017 and considered my expectations for this tour. Bonding. More responsibility as a section leader. Performances. Socializing with the HTMS members. Another thing I wrote down was possible disappointment that it won’t be the same places and people as the 2017 trip. That week two years ago was one of the most memorable of my life, and I wasn’t sure if this trip could match up to my previous experience. Last time, we performed at a commemoration ceremony in Port-au-Prince on January 12th, 2017 – the 7th anniversary of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that, by some estimates, claimed 100,000 lives and devastated the nation. We played music together with students of HTMS. There was a moment of silence at 4:53 pm – the approximate time that the earthquake struck. It was incredible that a brood of American students had the opportunity to participate in such a meaningful ceremony, making music with people who experienced the tragedy firsthand. That the Haitian people would invite us to join them in solemn remembrance. 

With both the Haitian and US governments more disordered than they were two years ago, many of our original plans for this trip had to be changed. Because of the ongoing US government shutdown, US embassies were closed, and we were forced to cancel a concert for the US ambassador to Haiti. We replaced it with performances at the College Saint-Martin de Tours yesterday and the Université de la Fondation Dr. Aristide today. It was a letdown to have to change plans so drastically, and I worried that we would not have a performance as significant as the earthquake commemoration concert two years ago. 

I was wrong. 

I was confused at this afternoon’s university concert when we started playing Julie Giroux’s “Hymn for the Innocent” while a lady was still speaking in French at the podium. Were we interrupting her? But she was still speaking. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. But then my heart broke when she started saying names. 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. 
Here was ‘something new’ that paralleled, if not surpassed, the ‘something old’. At least for me. The white flowers. The names spoken out loud. The solemn tone of the music, which was written “as a tribute to all the innocent lives that are lost whether by accident, disease, or acts of violence.” 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. It 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, a personal touch that invites us to contemplate and respect others’ pain. 

Which brings me back to the questions I’ve been asking myself this whole trip. Why are we here? Why Haiti? Why now? And Amanda’s question to us: why music? I am only barely beginning to grasp at answers. There are the responses I gave my family and friends. Haiti is the kind of place where we only hear about the bad things happening. Poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Corrupt government. Ravaged by earthquakes and hurricanes. We travel to Haiti to collaborate with Haitian people as equals, learn about their lives and culture, and show our colleagues back home that Haiti is more than its misfortune. 

As for “why music”, I feel that there are collective and personal answers. Overall, the world needs to shift its perspective on Haiti from a sympathetic perspective to an empathetic one. We could better contribute to closing the rift between Haiti and the US by sharing experiences with the Haitian people instead of pitying them and trying to clumsily help with foreign aid efforts that leave new problems behind. For us, as a group, music is the best way to do this. Although most of us face language barriers with the HTMS students, all of us understand music. 

On a personal level, this trip and the 2017 trip are wake up calls for me to remember just how meaningful music can be. I’ve been an instrumentalist for 12 years. Along the way, I’ve had times when I felt the only point of me doing music was to perform for my family, celebrate important events, and impress people. That there wasn’t much beyond that. Moments like the procession today and the commemorative concert last year remind me that music is so much more. It helps us remember. It helps us heal. 
Going forward, I urge everyone to consider the purpose of the trip and what music means to you. To step out of your comfort zone and really engage with the present moment and the Haitian people. I will leave you with this photo of the carnations. Remember why we’re here. 

-Vineeta Muthuraj, percussion