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Haitian Singers Visit Smith

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

Les Petits Chanteurs, a singing group from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, visited Smith on September 29, 2010, to benefit their school, which was damaged in teh earthquake earlier this year.

As this beautiful Mountain Day came to a close, the sunny fall atmosphere was enriched by the singing of Les Petits Chanteurs, the boys' choir of the Holy Trinity Music School of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The singers, doing a special collection tour to rebuild their school which was destroyed during the recent earthquake, were appearing at Smith for the second time.

The choir, which comprises 30 singers, chosen from the students starting at age seven, first came to Smith when Stephen Davenport, who organizes their U.S. tours, mentioned them to his niece, Smith student Marguerite Davenport. She suggested that they come, and though she has now graduated, they still visit Smith.

Sharply dressed in black pants and white shirts, Les Petits Chanteurs were professionally polished and yet at times playful in their voice and stage demeanor. They captured the audience of Smithies and community members alike with their classically trained a cappella style chorus and seven-member chamber ensemble. The emcee, who also doubled as a flute player in the ensemble, successfully coaxed the audience to get up and dance. Adeola Awodele '11, a member of the Smith African and Caribbean Student Association, took the cue, prancing in the center aisle, snapping pictures and swaying to the rhythm of the music.

The Holy Trinity Music School is an institution of the Episcopal Church in Port-au-Prince. The music they sing is religious, but not always classical church music. David César, who has worked at the school for 15 years, used to be the director of the entire school compound, but chose to focus on the music and is now musical director. He lists as his favorite part of the choir's repertoire "Rêve de chien" ("Dog's dream"), a piece by Haitian composer Émile Desamours. "He shows how dogs are always together, they eat together, they play together," said César. "And he asks why people aren't like this. Why don't we work for justice together, all children of God?"

Members of SASCA, Smith's Haiti Relief Committee, and Global Action Against Poverty Everywhere served as sponsors of the concert, helping with logistics, hospitality, and publicity. Himani Aggarwal '12 of GAAPE and Smith Haiti Relief Committee said she was glad she went. "It was great. It was one of those rare cultural events where you feel you're part of the group."

When some of the students were asked what their favorite music was, Desamours seemed to be a general favorite. Antoine, who has been singing with the choir for three years, likes Desamours' "L'Alelouya." He and his friends like singing, they say, but have other dreams for when they grow up. "I'm going to be an accountant," said one. "A scientist," said another. "And me," said a third student, "I'm going to be an astronaut aviator."

Infusing a special Haitian flavor to their music is a core value of Les Petits Chanteurs. "In Haiti," says César, "music is a way of expressing yourself and your culture. You sense nostalgia and sadness, but also joy, in Haitian music." Communicating this special relationship to music is one of the goals of the American tour, which will comprise 50 performances over the course of 28 days. "We want to give a positive image of Haiti."

This is perhaps especially important in the aftermath of January's devastating earthquake at a time when Americans may have a tendency to see the country as a pure disaster zone. Bernadette, a cellist who has been with the school since 2004, said that while the earthquake was a tragedy, it taught her that "music can really bring people together. Music can rebuild the country. Music can do anything."

Still, the school has felt the pain of the national disaster. In addition to the destruction of the school compound, four of their students died, including Alzinor, an alto who sang at Smith during their 2007 visit. When asked how they felt about the earthquake, some of the students replied, "Bad. Except when we're singing."