Voodoo at the Institute 

A lively cultural exchange after a summer in Haiti

As the Cleveland Institute of Music kicked off the school year with an opening assembly this fall, students got an unexpected earful. Near the event's close, a small group of musicians took the stage and fired up a rara, a sweaty voodoo stomp indigenous to Haiti.

Over the summer, three CIM students had traveled to the island nation to teach at a music camp. Although they found a country still struggling with the aftereffects of the devastating January 2010 earthquake, the trio also discovered a culture feeding off a rich musical tradition for sustenance. The rowdy performance back home was a testament to the Haitian spirit­—albeit a bit of an anomaly at a school where the curriculum is heavy on the musical legacy of dead Europeans.

The summer trip started with a phone call just six weeks after the 2010 disaster, when newspapers worldwide were still filled with daily reports on the devastation that had brought the country to its knees. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. called CIM to ask if the school would be interested in participating in the International Fellowship Mentoring Program, a U.S. State Department initiative that places arts instructors from developing nations in American schools. The idea is to give visitors tips on teaching the arts while they bring something of their home country to the host institution.

CIM officials agreed to be part of the culture swap. Not long after, they learned they'd be hosting a music teacher from the disaster-stricken country everyone was talking about.

"As soon as I heard that we were getting the person from Haiti, I said, 'Wow, this is going to be an amazing opportunity one way or another,'" recalls CIM Dean Dr. Adrian Daly.

The visitor was Bernadette Williams, an instructor from Sainte Trinité, a music school located in Port-Au-Prince. Even though the facility was badly banged up in the disaster, students continued to show up for classes. Music's place in Haitian society is so steadfast, CIM staff would learn from Williams, shaking ground couldn't knock it loose.

"The students were still coming for their music lessons surrounded by rubble," Daly says. "The lessons were in the open air because the roof had caved in. It was really challenging conditions."

Williams spent three days at CIM, hoovering up everything she could from the school's faculty, staff, and students. When it was time to leave, she and school administrators agreed to stay in touch. This spring, their relationship yielded an offer: The Haitian music teacher invited CIM to send students to help staff a summer music camp that Sainte Trinité holds every year in Cange, a remote village in Haiti's central plateau.

Daly shot out an e-mail inviting interested members of the student body to apply. Eventually, three students were cleared for the trip: incoming seniors Bill Delleles and Jeiran Hasan, and recent grad Samantha Cho.

"We talked with them to make sure they really knew what they were getting into," Daly explains. "Because on one level it's, 'Hey, I get to go to the Caribbean for four weeks and teach music to kids.' On another level, you're going to a place that was devastated two years ago and where recovery, in spite of all the great work agencies have been doing, is painfully slow."

Curiosity was what steered both Delleles and Hasan toward the opportunity. A percussion student from Steubenville, Delleles was keen to see how cultural cross-pollination could enlarge his own musical skill-set. Hasan, a senior flutist who regularly crisscrossed the globe on summer trips, wanted the uphill climb of a teaching experience complicated by a language barrier.

"I had no expectations," says Delleles, who was on the island from July 13 to August 7. "I figured if I went in with expectations, I would be disappointed. I knew to expect less than luxurious living conditions. But I was still very surprised by what I saw. Most all of the population of Port-Au-Prince was in sheet-metal shacks, with not a lot of vegetation around."

The CIM students were housed in a massive hospital complex built by Harvard University doctors. They worked with Haitians ranging in age from seven to 27. Neither Delleles nor Hasan spoke enough French to easily communicate with the Creole-speaking natives. But by mumbling enough familiar phrases and using music as a universal common ground, the students and teachers meshed.

"People there actually care about the music," Hasan says. "When you come to America, kids my age, they don't want to listen to classical music, they don't care about that. So just seeing that in the whole Haitian culture, how the 90-year-old and the nine month-old all appreciate music equally, I loved it."

Toward the end of the visit, Delleles came across a group of Haitian students playing a rara. The form is a fast-paced, percussion-based musical staple of the island's society, originally used to connect with the spirit world in voodoo ceremonies. "The same way that guys in this country will sit down and jam a blues or simple rock tune, those guys gather and play some rara," he says. "I sort of walked into the circle and they handed me a bass drum mallet. They showed me what to do."

Back in the States, Delleles tapped a few friends to help him develop a rara for the school year's opening assembly. Accompanied by Hasan on piccolo, the slamming drum number was a hit with CIM's student body, offering them an authentic sampling of voodoo rhythms.

"I think every culture has its riches," Delleles muses. "For everything we as Americans have in our society on the outside, [the Haitians] have on the inside. They were just a very rich group of people to be around."

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