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Ending (of the Beginning)

As my two and a half weeks in Haiti has come to an end, I've been able to understand more of the problems and situation of this country. Talking with people both of Haitian origin, individuals from the UN and other organizations, I have started to understand just how far deep the plight of this country goes. Improving this country is not going to be easy. There are superficial improvements and superficial aide to help the smaller immediate problems. However, the key for true change runs so much deeper than that. There is an immense lack of money to provide things that are needed - better roads, infrastructure, clean water, proper trash disposal, etc. It's difficult for Haiti to receive money because investors and businesses don't feel bringing their business to Haiti is a sound investment - due to lack of road infrastructure, businesses can't be sure their products will reach the necessary destination. Because of lack of electricity, they can't be sure that their products won't spoil. It's such a catch 22. Haiti needs money to provide education and create sound infrastructure. But they need sound infrastructure to build confidence and gain monetary support from outside countries and businesses.

It wasn't always like this. Back in the 60's Haiti used to be known as the pearl of the Caribbean - a beautiful, exotic and magical destination for honeymooners, nomads and vacationers. But government corruption and constant thirst for power killed that utopia, and since then things have been heading towards a downward spiral.

Alland was also explaining just how much things have worsened since the earthquake for everyone. Before the earthquake, Jacmel used to be known as 'the city of lights.' Since the earthquake oil has become incredibly expensive and people (who can afford it) must pay the government enormous sums of money per month to keep their homes lit. Even still, the government must regulate electricity because of the cost. Therefore, every day in Jacmel, electricity runs for only about 11 of the 24 hours a day. This makes things very difficult for the Haitian population - food constantly spoiling, inability to do important everyday business affairs, etc. It's even worse in other parts of Haiti. The individual I was sitting next to on the plane was saying how Jacmel is lucky to have 11 hours of electricity per day. His family lives in the epicenter of the earthquake and he said since January 2010 he's lucky if they have electricity even four days out of a month. It's astounding to me. So many things we take for granted are a luxury for this country. It's very sad to me, and maybe I have done a little bit to help in someway, but we are barely scratching the surface.

What is amazing to me is how the people of this country are so resilient and still continue to smile and experience life with such joy. They have been through so much, but somehow they hold on to faith so strongly and have hope for a better Haiti.

Yesterday, my student Linia invited me to a service at her church. She wanted me to hear them sing, and offer any advice or suggestions. Haitians have such an incredibly strong sense of faith, and channel this faith through song. I've never been to a church service before, and this service moved me in a way I can't explain. 60-80 young and old people standing up, rejoicing, praising and singing boldly to their God while Linia was belting over them in beautiful gospel song. It was so big and epic, it just moved me to tears. People from the outside were huddled around the open windows, quietly listening and praying. I could feel the hairs on my arm standing up, and my eyes filling with pools of water - in that moment, I had this overwhelming feeling that Linia and her church were giving their community a true hope for a better Haiti, like they were giving their country something to believe in. Even as I write about it now, I am welling up! I am ever so grateful to Linia and her church for inviting me into their faith and allowing me the opportunity to experience such a beautiful celebration of life and faith.

As I sum things up, I will say that this trip hasn't been without its challenges- stolen passport and money and IDs, extreme heat with lack of electricity, the language barrier, etc, but all of that is small in comparison to what this community deals with on a daily basis. All along the way however, they smile, and keep living. Their passion for music, for dance, love of food, extreme generosity and hospitality is inspiring and infectious. Alland, Ailene, and the music school crew took us dancing last night, and I was overtaken by what I experienced - just how much the Haitians embody a profound zest for life despite hard times. I have never sweat so hard on a dance floor before! Afterward, a long night ride under the Haitian sky on motorcycle, the breeze in our faces as we zipped down along the coast, and I just want to keep that memory tucked away forever and ever.

Haitians are so proud of their culture, and I can see why. Even though we have more than them in many ways from a materialistic, there is much we can learn from them. They live with such a positive attitude always. Whenever I ask how someone is, they always reply in this sweet singsong of a voice in creole 'All is well.' And then flash a big smile. This trip allowed me to see all of the extremes in Haiti- the dire poverty, the situation of the majority of the Haitian population, dirty and heavily polluted areas, and absolute serene and stunningly picturesque areas. Although this country may not be all beautiful in the quintessential meaning of the world, to me the people and the culture make it truly vibrant and breathtaking. The people here do what they can to help - Fritz, Alland, Aline, Fabrice, Mignon and others, providing hope and inspiration for the Haitian community through music. This country needs music, they need it to keep hope and instigate change. I'm so happy I could play a little part in that mission, and I hope this is the beginning of long and lasting relationship with an amazing country of people.



Teaching Boot Camp

Between yesterday and today, I have taught a total of 14 hours. Tomorrow I will teach 8. I've been here about a week and after tomorrow will have taught about 43 hours over since I arrived. It's nuts to me how much 1:1 teaching I've been doing, especially considering I did not do much of it before. I decided that qualifies as teaching boot camp. Turns out I actually really like teaching and am pleasantly surprised to find that I am really good at it! The students range so much in age and experience, and the language barrier provides an added obstacle at times, but slowly I am learning to get around that too.

I am finding that I especially love teaching in a 1:1 setting, especially older and more serious students. I already see an incredible change in some of my students, even just after 1 lesson. They are like sponges- so excited to be learning and eager to incorporate all of their leanings and practice hard. They stop by in their free time to ask questions, or just say hi, and it's just a wonderful feeling to feel as though you have these wonderful personal and friendly relationships with your students. It makes them feel at ease in their lessons and allows them to be as bold and unreserved when singing and learning.

The rigorous teaching schedule can be taxing for sure. I go at 100% each lesson because I want to make sure the students have the most positive and worthwhile experience they can have learning with me. There are moments where I feel too tired (like right now!) but then when you see your student improve right in front of your eyes you just want to do it all over again because seeing them learn and internalize lessons is honestly the most rewarding experience ever.

There aren't any voice teachers at the school here, so the students have all been very excited to study singing. My schedule has been so full each day that I've had to double, triple and even quadruple up lessons a few times, which has actually been ok. I thought it would be difficult to teach more than one student at once, but surprisingly it's fairly easy, especially I think since everyone is so well-behaved and respectful here.

Of course I have favorites to teach. There's Linia, a beautiful girl and singer. She's so thoughtful, and cares so much about learning and improving. She speak English fluently too so we have gotten to know each other quite well. I love spending time with her and just exchanging stories and laughing. She asked I come to her church with her next Saturday to teach some music. I'm excited and feel so honored to do so!

Then there's Charles, a jazz trumpet player with a beautiful sound. He speaks Spanish too (hurray!) which means I get to practice my Spanish and communicate with him. He's so inquisitive, asks questions, just hoping to take as much in as he can. I played a lot of music for him which I made sure he got, and then we worked on some phrasing and even improvising. It was actually a little daunting at first to try and teach someone about improvising, especially because that is something I very much still need to work on, but once again I know more than I think! We did a few improvising exercises focused on creating clean phrases and leaving space, and the change in his improvising was almost immediate. In some of these cases, I am finding that it's just making students aware, and once they have the awareness they are able to make quick and immediate improvements.

That evening Friendship Jazz was having a concert, so all of the music school planned to go.

The concert was at the stunning Alliance Francois building in downtown Jacmel. Aline told us that the building had been severely destroyed from the earthquake, but had been rebuilt fast.

The building has transportive qualities, a cross between old European architecture, and the sprawling big colorful architecture of tropical Haiti. It actually takes your breath away, old stones set the wall behind the stage, while majestic palm trees provide shade overhead.


The concert at Alliance Francis was a scene. Everyone and anyone came out, dressed up to the nines. It was really fun to see such a high class social gathering, gave me some more insight into the Haitian community and their livelihood. It did feel very much like a little family. Everyone was talking to each other, getting to know each other. So many of my students were there either performing or watching so it was great to see so many familiar faces!

Friendship Jazz invited me to sing two songs with them - Autumn Leave, and Misty. I was super super nervous, but they were so so incredibly warm and welcoming and the audience was so receptive. It was really amazing to be able to share the stage with my Haitian friends, and I am constantly just astounded by the generosity, humility and kindness of this culture. Performing with Friendship Jazz was an amazing experience, and I hope we are able to work together again in the future!


After I was done singing, we grabbed some beers and chilled and watched the rest of the set. Haitian music has such complicated polyrhythms - big 2 against 4 against 5. It's fun to try and figure out whats going rhythmically, but I wish that automatically translated into being able to play like that!


All in all, amazing music, amazing company- one of my favorite nights so far.

Today is another long day of lessons and then I teach choir later this evening which I am looking forward to!

The lessons went smoothly. I had the pleasure of teaching this adorable shy sweet 16 year old boy named Luxama. You just want to squeeze him, he's so precious. He takes his singing so seriously, and has quite a lovely voice and great musicianship. He was painfully shy at first, but now he's opened up a bit and when he smiles at me big with his adorable little gap tooth smile I kind of melt a bit.

Leading a choir was a semi- new experience for me. I definitely have worked with a cappella groups before, but leading a choir on my own was a bit new for me. The number of participants in choir vary each week, and the set up is pretty lax- no really set schedule or repertoire week to week, so it was sort of up to me in terms of what to do. Lauren brought this amazing book of four part Northern Harmony hymns, so I photocopied a few songs from there to teach the students via solfege. Apparently before a student is allowed to begin an instrument study at the Jean Baptisse school, they must take a full year of solfege. Of course this means the students are killer sight- singers.

Teaching the choir was actually really fun, and I was surprised at how good I was at it. There was one dude who was a bit of a pain, but I was handling him. For my approach, I decided that we all learn each part first and then have some fun switching around so we could all get a better feel and understanding for the other person's part. This tactic worked really well. I also recorded them singing and played it back for them, so they could hear the weak areas and make improvements. We had a great time, and I was impressed with the improvements made just over the course of the hour!


Also, side note, while I was teaching choir, Lauren was teaching the cutest student ever- Edole. She made that shell necklace for Lauren that she's wearing in the picture. I am kinda jealous!


We decided to get a little cute this evening, as it was Friday, and go to our usual hang- Florita, for some bebidas and food.



Serge, the amazing bad ass saxophonist from Friendship Jazz stopped by to chat, as he was in the area. It was so great to chat with him about the concert the night before, and just rehash things. It blows my mind how thankful they are for our time and efforts here, and he kept reiterating how happy he was that I could sing with them all. I hope that he was able to realize how much of a special and exciting event it was for me as well, and how appreciative I was to have a group make me feel so welcome on stage.

Friday nights at Florita apparently have live music! It was the same band that played music under the straw hut for us while we were stranded in that crazy storm. They were so good, man we chilled, ate, and danced for hours. It's amazing- the band is a five piece band of four different percussionists (one who sings) and one harmonic instrument - a mandolin. No wonder why they groove so hard. People were dancing compa all up in the place. (traditional Haitian dance style I've mentioned before.) Alland gave me a mini tutorial, but he kept saying I was doing too much Indian shit in my dancing- too much obvious hip action. I guess it's all about the subtlety of the movement with the Haitians. I finally got the hang of it a bit after a while, but I am no Haitian compa dancer.


Alland also told us about a specific style of compa dancing known as 'plogé' which literally means to be 'plugged in' (to someone). Alland said this type of dancing is reserved only for your girlfriend. After seeing what it entails, I agree.



Hot Hot Hot

I'm pretty sure this isn't a technical term, but it is hot hot hot as balls today. Like holy s$@*%! Lauren and I tried to go on a early morning excursion to find the grocery store, but between the pounding heat and the constant game of Frogger we are playing dodging motorcyclists on the main road, we gave up. We all get Wednesday mornings off so we coordinated to go do some Internet work at Florita and then check out the neighboring artisanal community that Jacmel is famous for.

I resigned myself from 7 am this morning that I would be a sticky hot mess all day. There was no escaping that. This would be a full sunblock and hat day.


We gladly sought shelter from the magnitude of the sun at Florita, who's bar is lined with revolving wall fans. You don't even know how clutch fans are until you come to Haiti.


That's our iguana friend (I forget his name) who lives at The Florita sometimes. Apparently, he too needed some shelter from the beating sun today!


Jacmel is known for its local art. A lot of the homes that display the art and serve as art studios used to be charming old French mansions from during their reign in Haiti.

I absolutely love looking at handicrafts, so I made the bold trek under stifling heat with Diana and Reginald (a contrabassist from the school) around the various craft hovels. Everything is made by hand, with such vivid colors and care taken in each brush stroke. The Haitian artists tend to create a lot of patterns of fruits or flowers - quite true to their tropical locale. They also do a tremendous amount of weaving- beautiful bags and pot holders hand crafted purely from white straw and dyed straws. Painting is also a frequently practiced trade for these artists - extremely vibrant and vivid paintings of scenery, dancing bodies, and other festive moments dot the sides streets waiting to be bought by foreigners passing by.


Paper mâché is also a big handicraft here. Vases, masks, jewelry, coasters are all expertly made here by paper mâché and then painted in bright pinks, blues, greens, etc.


Heidi in a sexy paper mâché mask. Now I know what to be for Halloween next year.



Along our walk, an older man approached us asking if we'd like to see his shops. His family was from Venezuela so he also spoke Spanish, which meant I could communicate with him and that made me happy! He told me the Haitian community is like one big family. Everyone looks after each other and takes care of each other. He said that all of the artists work together with each other as a collective unit, and so not only did he support us buying from his store, but also the stores of his friends. Because of these collaborative spirit, a lot of the shops have similar things, or slight variations of the pieces.

Even the surrounding area of the artist community is a work of art itself - beautiful, vibrant and color pops of graffiti line the sides of the street. The ocean and lilting palm trees beckon in the back. It looks like a painting itself.



The outside of one of the shops we were taken to:




Even as the hot sun was oppressively hanging over us, I couldn't get enough of the shops and the surrounding area. There was just such a beauty and peace to it all. That's our Venezuelan friend we made (sadly, who's name I forgot!) who took us around to all the various artist shops.


The afternoon was packed with five hours of lessons back to back. The students I had ran the gamut from 12 years old - 50 years old, some instrumentalist wanting to learn how to sing, to some who are experienced, to some just starting out. Regardless of where they are at, everyone is so inquisitive and excited to be singing, it really is amazing and makes me so happy to be able to hand down my knowledge. When I give direction and hear or see that change being carried out and thus improving the musicality of the song, that is just when I feel so so lucky to improve these amazing musicians' knowledge. I am also amazed at how fast of a learner everyone seems to be- it's clear that the Haitian people just have music coursing through their veins.

The other thing that I am realizing is that because English is not known to many of my students, learning lyrics can be quite tedious and take up a large part of the lesson. So we have been learning songs on vowels rather than words, and then add the words in later.

During the evening I went to hear 'Friendship Jazz' rehearse again at the school. There have swag, there is no other way to put it. You can't help but pop your booty when you hear them play. They just have something that can't be taught. They invited me to come sing at their concert tomorrow, which I am really honored and excited about!


Their rehearsal left me in such a great mood until upon our return we found the power to be out. You have no idea how effing hot it is. Lauren and I did a little power chant under candlelight- we need moving air!!! It was too hot to fall asleep, and finally our prayers were answered with the electricity coming back ! We happily fell asleep, but awoke again to the sauna of the night as once the power went out at 2 am (as it always does each night to save usage of electricity.) Nevertheless, some how we managed to sleep through the night!



Friendship Jazz

Today was another really long day, and my mood experienced many swings throughout the day, but ending on a very high note. I taught 6 lessons today, 1 hour in the morning, and 5 hours in the afternoon, back to back. Only one of the students in the afternoon spoke English (the amazingly talented miss Linia), so it was incredibly taxing- much like my first day of lessons on Saturday. By my fifth lesson of trying to work with broken English, French, Spanish, hand gestures, and seeking out my colleagues to do some basic translating, I couldn't see straight. I wanted to collapse. I wanted to cry. Teaching under heat and with a language barrier is absolutely exhausting! Poor Paul Auguste, my last lesson of the day, he got the short end of the stick - No Energy Neha!

I did have some wonderful lessons throughout the day though. Before I got exhausted, I realized that I am getting used to figuring out ways to communicate with the students that cannot speak English. It is definitely getting a little easier, and I also picking up some small French words important for teaching singing like high, low, loud, soft, head voice, etc. I know, really exciting words to learn in such a beautiful language, but they are necessary!

At some point during the day JD wanted to get some footage of us all playing together for his documentary. So we sight- read through the Cole Porter score of Body and Soul. It was really fun to sing behind a trio of beautiful string players! We definitely needed some rehearsal, but JD and his kids were so encouraging and it was really awesome to have them film us and be a part of their mission over this past year in some small way.




We don't usually have dinner at Mila's, but we were told that it was going to be good tonight. However, it was quite quite different from what we expected- just a sweet porridge with bread. We weren't even able to stomach two bites and just had to bolt out of there. Even Heidi, the Haitian native, couldn't stomach the dinner, so we didn't feel too bad. Here's the lady who sells bananas every day right outside Mila's home.


Side note, we are already running out of clean clothes and between the deet, sweat, sunblock, etc etc, a 'load' of laundry needs to be done ASAP. Here's our version of 'throwing in a load.'


After one failed dinner (at Mila's) and one great dinner (at chandelier's) we headed to the school to watch the band 'Friendship Jazz' rehearse. One of the members of Friendship jazz, a chubby older man with the most mischievous yet warmest smile, had invited me earlier that day to come sing with them and listen.

When I arrived, the group immediately made me feel at ease. They were just the friendliest people ever, and something about their smiles immediately make me feel like they are old friends. They ask me to sit out for a bit while they work on some instrumental pieces. They played 'I Can't Get Started With You,' 'Besame Mucho,' (and when they played this song, you knew what they were saying even though they weren't saying it), some salsa tunes, and a few other tunes. I was blown away by the potential and the talent. Haitians just have music and dance in their blood. I will probably never be able to swing as hard as they do. I was in awe of their humility, and I just wished so much they could even have a fraction of the opportunities we do- with even a little bit of guidance and proper instruction, they would really just kill it so hard.

Here are three of the woodwind/ horn players (the two on either end are brothers)


They have so much sass when they play, maybe they don't have as much educational knowledge about jazz, but I feel like they bring something to the music that just can't be taught. I hope that I can figure out a way to build a partnership between NEC and this school in Jacmel, as so many people could benefit and flourish from a bit of teaching from our peers and colleagues in Boston. Its been such a tremendous experience, and also an inspiring exchange between both of our cultures. I feel like this trip has been so expansive for me in so many ways already!


They asked if I would sing with them- so incredibly welcoming and nonjudgmental- just ever so happy to make music! So I sang Misty and Autumn Leaves. They invited me to perform with them in a concert on Thursday too, which I am really looking forward to. This is why they said the named their group 'Friendship Jazz'- because it's an open community where friends of music can come and share and play together.


Here's the whole group:


And the band leader:


Here's the most absurdly killing sax player, there is something about the way he plays and phrases - you just can't stop listening to him! He's also the man who invited me to come sing (but I forget his name!) I want to put him in my pocket and take him back to America, but he wouldn't fit.


As I was leaving the school, I happened to see the group of old men from the other day, sitting outside in the twilight Haitian sky, enjoying a game of cards. It is tough here in Haiti sometimes, but Haitians love their country and have a tremendous sense of pride for their heritage. I hope to have some of Haiti permanently rub off on me when I go back - Haitian people really really know how to make the most put of everything, and they truly seem to have a zest for life that is inspiring and fulfilling.




We're in Haiti!

Haiti is quite a place. I guess for me, it wasn't really a shock to see the crazy hustle in the airport, the sweltering heat. In many ways my first impression of Haiti reminded me very much of India.



Fabrice, one of the students and administrators at the school was ready to greet us. He traveled over 3 hours that morning from Jacmel to receive us. Fabrice is a sweet, adorable and jovial young man with chubby cheeks and a dimpled smile. He instantly put us at ease.

The drive from Port Au Prince to Jacmel felt like eternity. Port Au Prince, as you may imagine, is extremely overcrowded and dirty- people everywhere on the street, working, selling just about anything to make money, just utter chaos- but all the while a swagger, pride, and strength they maintain.


Where Port Au Prince was stuffy, sweltering and very stop and go, the next portion of the journey was extremely picturesque and serene- tiny, narrow, windy roads cutting across huge peaks and valleys of greenery and palm trees.

The drive was over three hours, and the heat made it unbearable at times. Finally, though, we made it.

The Jean Baptisse Dessaix music school is a small school nestled in a row of other businesses and houses. Most of these are very hut like, old dilapidated houses- nothing in this town is new, but there is a charm in the aging and wearing of these buildings. The colors down and around the street are vibrant- orange, green, blues, yellows everywhere.

One of the musicians, Heidi, who came with us from Boston, was actually born and raised in Haiti. She left Haiti when she was 18 and came back for the first time in 15 years with us. She said she was in absolute shock around how things have worsened in this country over the last 15 years that she has been gone.

Our conditions were definitely a bit of a shock to me at first. It's manageable but everything is minimal. The power goes out several times throughout the day and running water is not always available. Not gonna lie, the bathroom freaks me out the most but I am trying to adjust!


Once arriving at the school we were taken to a small home where we will be eating our meals for the time we are here. It's quite dilapidated and such, so at first it felt like an uncomfortable experience to be eating here, but the food is absolutely amazing, and I feel as though it allows me to get a better sense of Haiti.



After lunch our schedules were not set as of yet so we had some free time. The heat in the afternoon is unbearable and so I really did not know what to do- and I had a moment where I really wasn't sure if I would survive this trip.

Around 5 pm, Aline (one of the teachers at the school who came over from France for two years to teach, she's amazing and more on her later) asked if I would like to help out with the choir that comes every Friday.

This is when things started turning around. The choir, albeit small, was full of sweet music aficionados, both young and old - all excited to sing. I watched them sing this cute French song called Les Comediens by C. Aznavour and P. Martin- Bres.

After hearing them sing we did some warm ups and then Aline left the class to me. I wasnt really sure what to do- I didn't even have any choral music. So I played some jazz for the students and then we worked on summertime. It was just so fun to see them grooving out and enjoying learning. It was extremely difficult in moments to teach with the language barrier- If I ever come back, it's so important that I at least learn French. It just can be so frustrating at times and the worst part is that I can't even get to know some of my students because we can't communicate. But despite the language barrier I have been finding ways to make it work.

The rest of the girls had already left to go To this hotel in town JD had told us about. I said I would meet them as I was teaching until 7 pm. It was a bit scary walking alone to be honest- stray dogs everywhere, burning trash dotting the sides of some street, young boys darting around on scooters, getting every so close to you but just barely missing you. I finally found my way, entering into this very old bungalow style exposed brick bar with old straw bar chairs, straight out of 1950s Havana , Cuba or at least how I imagine it.


I can't find my colleagues anywhere but a guy approaches me asking if he can help in anyway. I am smitten immediately, he is SO sexy. Olive skinned, dark hair, tall, beautiful smile. I am a little tongue tied and nervous, he's just too sexy to look in the eye!

We talk for a bit and I ask him where he's from- turns out he's from Berkeley, CA, helping out on his dad's hotel. He says he hasn't seen the girls anywhere, so I decide to go exploring a bit as I can see the ocean nearby.

I walk around as the sun is setting and see some beautiful mural art as I stroll down to the beach.


The beach is alive - boys playing soccer, people sitting outside a cafe eating and relaxing.


The beach itself is dirty unfortunately - trash everywhere. But there is definitely an energy out here that I love. I take a look around and then walk back to the hotel, where I run into the girls.

We all get acquainted with the sexy man (his name is Eli), and he joins us and we just spend the evening chatting and chilling. He even brought us four beers for each of us as a Haitian housewarming - the beer is called Prestige, and it's the Haitian local beer. It's actually pretty delicious, and cool and refreshing under the sticky June heat. Beer, good people, sexy man, wall fans... What more can I ask for in my first night in Haiti?!