Eric Brown’s mother told him that traveling to Haiti would be “eye-opening.”
“Like most sons, I kind of tuned her out,” recalled Brown, a graduate student in the University of Kentucky’s voice program.
But as he rode across the border to Haiti from the Dominican Republic for the first time, in late June, he was stunned by the number of people crossing from Haiti to the Dominican Republic for market day, the noticeable rise in heat due the lack of vegetation, the litter across the land, and people bathing and washing clothes in the river.
“Being an American and going and seeing this was very eye-opening and heart-breaking at the same time,” Brown says. “It’s not something you run across in Lexington.”
Brown and fellow UK voice student Manuel Castillo were in Haiti last month to explore a unique way to help in the desperately impoverished, earthquake-ravaged country.
The UK opera program is partnering with Alltech to help launch a music program, Haitian Harmony, in the town of Ouanaminthe. The hope is to put together a choir of about 35 students that will perform at the Fortnight Festival during the Alltech-FEI World Equestrian Games and, in the long term, become a choir that will tour the world, much like the African Children’s Choir.
Alltech is setting up a plant in Haiti that will initially employ 20 to 30 people, and, in conjunction with that, the company will build a school and a medical clinic. UK will maintain the music program there using graduate students as instructors.
Brown and Castillo’s initial foray into the program, a five-day visit in late June, showed them there were plenty of talented students able and eager to learn.
“I went out to the little patio to meet the kids,” Castillo, who is now in Italy singing with Operafestival di Roma, wrote in a diary posted on Facebook. English is not Castillo’s first language. “They grab my hair, hands and feet and I walk all around with them, they look so happy, it is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time, very hard to explain while at the same time I am wondering how in the world we are going to work with the kids and make things work.”
Brown says the kids had one advantage as a result of their poverty.
“They have a much better memory than even I do,” Brown said, pointing out they lack recording devices or much of anything else to aid in remembering things. “We taught them a number of things, in various languages, and invariably, they took the tune, no matter what it was that we worked on.”
He and Castillo taught the kids songs like Frère Jacques and La Cucaracha. Then, to really test them, the singers taught the students the tune to Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.
As impressive as the development of the children’s memories was, most of their circumstances were heartbreaking. Brown noticed that when teachers at the school brought him water, the students would focus on it. He soon realized that was because water was not readily available to the kids, so he asked the staff to stop bringing him water in front of the kids.
In his diary, Castillo noted that he and Brown brought the students water on their last day in Ouanaminthe, and supplying water is one thing they will be sure to do when they return in August.
After the short music “camp,” Brown and Castillo have a clearer idea of what the circumstances are – a school with no electricity or indoor plumbing – where any instruments or even a pitch pipe will have to brought in.
“I can firmly say that we need all August and September to bring them up to the highest standards of vocal performance,” Castillo wrote.
They see it as an achievable goal, Brown noting that the children are not deprived of talent or desire. They just haven’t had the opportunity, until now.
In planning, Brown notes, “this project is very, very young. This not something that has been on the table for a long period of time, and we’re just trying to figure out how we can best help the community and best help the children.”
Both of the students are eager to get back to Ouanaminthe.
“I’m very proud to be a part of it,” Brown says. “It’s very much a humanitarian project. It’s not something I ever really imagined in my wildest dreams. Even seeing the poverty and the litter, seeing the smiles on the children’s faces was very rewarding.
Castillo reflects, “The gift of music has been a blessing in my life, and I am able to share it with all kinds of people. The language of music defeats any Country’s border and disappears all the barriers. I know it because I live it 365 days a year; but this week in Haiti; I lived it daily with a heat that did not come from the sun. It came directly from the hearts.”