Fifty student musicians in the Cornell Wind Symphony (CU Winds) traveled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic Jan. 10-17 for a service-learning concert tour that was “genuinely transformative,” said James Spinazzola, director of wind ensembles.
“Our students collaborated with 150 student and professional musicians in four concerts, built institutional relationships that are already leading to related projects, and demonstrated the power of music as a vehicle for global awareness and cultural exchange,” he said.
The ensemble’s first performance, at the Kiosque Occide Jeanty amphitheater in Port-au-Prince, was part of a ceremony marking the anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Dignitaries in attendance included President Jocelerme Privert, religious leaders and the minister of culture and communications, who all “spoke to the importance of peace, reconciliation and remembrance,” Spinazzola said. “‘This concert,’ President Privert said, ‘is far from being lighthearted, and was organized to remind us of our missing brothers and sisters.’”
Traveling north of the capital, CU Winds performed with members of the Yale Concert Band and 100 musicians from Port-au-Prince’s Holy Trinity Music School in a gala concert Jan. 14 at Palais Sans-Souci, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Cap-Haitien.
Funded by the Haitian government, the United States Embassy, the Haitian national heritage institute ISPAN and the community-building foundation FOKAL, with support from the Haiti Bureau of UNESCO, the concert’s purpose was to “celebrate life on the anniversary of the earthquake, promote peace and reconciliation in Haiti after a contentious presidential election, and draw attention to efforts to preserve and refurbish Sans-Souci and the Citadelle Laferrière,” Spinazzola said.
The stage and audience platforms at Palais Sans-Souci were designed and built by historic preservation specialist Frederick Mangones ’67, B.Arch. ’70.
Student musicians met U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Peter Mulrean, and the audience of about 1,000 also included local and national officials and residents of surrounding communities.
“The end of the concert dissolved organically into a jam session led by the Haitian musicians, in which numerous tunes were played over a percussion vamp using Haitian and Dominican instruments,” Spinazzola said. “Members of the audience remained until the staff finally turned off the lights. The atmosphere was electric.”
The group traveled to Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, to collaborate and perform with the Carol Morgan School band before returning to the U.S.
Cornell students worked with Carol Morgan students in grades 6-12 over two days; their joint concert included traditional merengue music and raised $500 to support the Holy Trinity School of Music. Donors from Cornell and Yale provided matching funds to purchase a digital piano, to be delivered from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince.
“We hope this will be the beginning of a warm and mutually beneficial relationship between the two schools,” Spinazzola said.
CU Winds prepared for the tour over the fall semester with French lessons, assigned readings, invited guest speakers, and group discussions of culture and history and both countries’ relations with the U.S.
Amanda Barrett Wittman, associate director of community-engaged curricula and strategy in the Office of Engagement Initiatives, traveled with the group and provided learning support, including preparing students for “going to a place you may have a lot of assumptions about, and comparing that to the reality you see there.”
The students kept a tour blog and engaged in critical reflection during and after the trip. “They were thinking through social justice issues, and the role that music has in creating equal and just societies,” she said. “We asked them to really reflect – did this bring about differences in how you think? Do you have a new perspective on your ethics or your identity?”
Four of the students had toured Costa Rica with CU Winds in 2014. “More than accepting – and knowing from Costa Rica – that many times you just have to go with the flow, I embraced the rough patches,” CU Winds President Jonathan Karsch ’17 wrote on the tour blog. “Throughout our travels and music-making … I felt a sense of hope from all our Haitian collaborators. Hope that through the pursuit of music, they could make lasting contributions to their communities, and that their country could recover from all its recent strife.”
Barrett Wittman said: “For the folks that had gone on both trips, they got to see firsthand what it really takes to work on these sustained, mutually beneficial cultural relationships … It’s such an interesting way to understand how to be engaged in a discipline.”
An independent film crew also accompanied the tour, and the concerts were featured in the national newspapers Le Nouvelliste and Haiti en Marche.
“Haitian-U.S. relations are rife with stories of projects that never came to fruition and people who made promises but never delivered,” Spinazzola said. “We did the opposite, and in doing so we forged relationships with the Holy Trinity School of Music and the Carol Morgan School that have the potential, I feel, to be both lasting and reciprocal. I’m so proud of our students; they were the ideal ambassadors, both of Cornell and of our country.”
This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.