I recently received a note from Haitian-American composer and performer Gifrants about a column I wrote on Haitian classical music. The DaPonte String Quartet played his “Dyalog” last year as part of a fund-raising event event for Konbit-Sante, a Maine-based non-profit that has been helping to build the capacity of the public health system in northern Haiti for the past 15 years, in cooperation with the Haitian Ministry of Health.
Gifrants’ letter came at an opportune time. February is Black History Month, and I recently learned that Haiti is developing its own version of “El Sistema,” in cooperation with Venezuela, where the program originated in 1975.
El Sistema is an immensely successful initiative that trains children from the ghetto in classical music, giving them a free education along the way. I can personally attest to its efficacy, having heard its premiere orchestra, the Simon Bolivar, under Gustav Dudamel, perform Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. It was simply the finest, most exciting rendition of that masterpiece I have ever heard, live or recorded.
It seemed to me then, and still does, that the Venezuelan invention, in which our own Portland String Quartet has participated, offered the best of both worlds: for the students an introduction to “the best that has been thought and said” and to the art, fresh vitality and enthusiasm.
I was thus surprised to read some rather virulent attacks on the program, primarily because it took children away from their own indigenous music. Aside from the fact that there is little indigenous music in the slums of Venezuela or any other country, the enthusiasm of the students for hitherto unknown treasures is refutation enough.
And there are other reasons that only “classical” music works. As one advocate has observed: “At the heart of El Sistema is a simple idea: using the classical music ensemble experience to promote positive social change in youth. It works because in a musical ensemble, there is diversity of role yet unanimity of purpose and direction. In an ensemble, there is no success for one without success for all. And unlike sports, an ensemble’s success is measured only against its potential; its victories are not contingent on others being vanquished.”
True folk music, of the type analyzed and incorporated in a composer’s own work, by Bartok, for example, is indeed an art form, unlike the mass-produced dreck that slum kids hear on the radio, which can actually have detrimental effects. When my late wife worked at Pineland Center for the Developmentally Disabled, the staff observed the effect of music on patients. Classical music was beneficial in many ways; “pop” music increased violence and agitation.
Gifrants, like Bartok, goes back to the roots of Haitian music as inspiration for both popular and classical works. His “Natif” pieces utilize the multitude of complex rhythms in folk music, plus unusual harmonies that have developed from the characteristics of native instruments.
For a tiny country that established its independence from France by defeating a Napoleonic army in 1804, Haiti has produced more than 60 accomplished classical composers. Many of them based their work on folk music, but “tamed down” to appeal to listeners accustomed to European forms.
New generations, in Haiti and throughout Latin America, are taking a more rigorous approach, with important results. The El Sistemja orchestra that I heard played Mexican composer Jose Luis Hufrtado Ruelas (b. 1975) with the same delight as Stravinsky.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: