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Spreading Hope in Haiti through Music

Mozart knew the flute could be magical, but Sam Golter only found out last summer, while teaching Haitian youth in that island nation still recovering from a massive earthquake in January 2010.

At the request of six of his beginning students, Golter taught them to play the melody from “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song from the movie “Titanic.” The performance showed Golter how, when all political rhetoric can seem empty, or when charitable donations dry up, there is one thing that can uplift the soul above it all, motivating, inspiring and sustaining real hope.

Golter helped his students experience the transforming power of music.

“It gave them purpose and direction,” said Golter, 21, a music student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. “That’s what music has the potential to be.”

Teaching music was the highlight of Golter’s four weeks at the Dessaix-Baptiste Music School in Jacmel.

The Haitian school, which won recognition from first lady Michelle Obama last year, is one in a network of music schools in Haiti greatly impacted by the earthquake. Buildings were damaged; instruments were rendered unplayable. It was especially bad in the capital of Port-Au-Prince at the Holy Trinity Music School. When the music stopped, Lawrence University, known for its world-class conservatory, took action.

Cello professor Janet Anthony had long helped Haitian children come to America to study at Lawrence. But the earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 Haitians, refocused attention on the island nation. Within nine days of the tragedy, Lawrence put on the “Concert for Haiti,” which was broadcast across Wisconsin. More than $30,000 was raised to help reconstruction efforts.

“Weeks after the earthquake, musicians from Holy Trinity began performing for displaced people living in the makeshift tent cities,” Anthony said. “With this donation the music school will build a temporary rehearsal structure. … Plans have been drawn up to rebuild the entire cathedral complex.”

Beyond money, more than 40 Lawrence students have given their time and talent to teach young musicians in Haiti.

Golter took 10 weeks of Haitian Creole classes as a tutorial taught by Anthony, for which Golter and other students received credit in French. It gave Golter and others a foundation for a one-month stint in the summer, though he says he was only able to communicate on a very basic level. Among his go-to phrases, he knew how to say:

“M’Remen mizik,” Creole for “I love music.” Haitian Creole was the language of choice. But no language was needed to communicate his heartache when he first saw Haiti.

“It was shocking to see the amount of structural damage in Haiti,” Golter said about the day he stepped foot in Port-au-Prince. “It’s really heartbreaking to see the remains of fountains and the Royal Palace collapsed. You really need to see it to comprehend the profundity of the destruction.”

Jacmel, an hour drive south from Port-au-Prince, had considerably less damage than the capital. But the students at the Dessaix-Baptisste Music School were no less needy.

“They’re all underhoused and underfed,” said Golter. Despite that, he saw nothing frivolous about teaching music. Golter said the students all needed and wanted the music lessons.

“The youngest were just happy to be there,” said Golter. “They would high-five each other if they did something well. I got a sense they were more happy to be doing something. That’s one of the problems that come with traumatic events that occurred in Haiti. A lot of life is spent trying to find something to do because there’s not enough work. Half of the problem is keeping the passion for life going.”

For two hours a day, Golter taught his charges, about 14 of them ages 11-18, ranging from beginners to advanced. And they all wanted to learn the “Titanic” theme for their final recital.

“It was one of the most beautiful things ever,” said Golter. “A realization that this could bring such a result; it was awesome. The entire audience erupted like it was the Beatles.”

The finale solidified Golter’s bond with the students. “One of them painted me a painting of a Haitian landscape,” Golter said. “By the end (of the music camp), my students were crying.”

Golter still does recitals of his own in the United States, raising more than $300 recently in Virginia. Every dollar helps and is put to good use, especially since Golter and other students pay their own way. While the Lawrence community has given money to help support post-quake Haiti through professor Anthony’s efforts, the school has only given a small grant to the travel program. Golter says the travel program remains an unofficial extracurricular activity, where the students not just pay their own way but are there on their own volition.

After last summer, Golter has no regrets about that. He misses not just the students, but expresses a love of Haitian food like plantains, and even the “junk” food like sodas sweetened with cane sugar.

Golter says he can’t stay away now that he has learned the power of music.

“If we want people to progress we need to give them a spiritual and edifying sense, an outlet to use the immateriality of music to help them structure their lives,” Golter said. “The musical experience and training helped influence their world view in a positive respect and helped them move their country forward.” D


To see a video of the students:

Emil Guillermo is a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”        

For more about college youth coming to the aid of Haiti’s people, be sure to check out the blog entries documenting a recent trip by Howard University students to Haiti:

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