Students Bring Home More Than Memories From Musical Mission to Haiti

In Haiti, Holy Trinity School of Music teachers Theophile Joseph, left, and Etienne Pierre-Richard, right, gather with SHU's Brian Beatty, Keith Johnston and Rob Cowan.

In Haiti, Holy Trinity School of Music teachers Theophile Joseph, left, and Etienne Pierre-Richard, right, gather with SHU's Brian Beatty, Keith Johnston and Rob Cowan.

News Story: February 1, 2012

Sacred Heart University trumpet players who traveled to Haiti in January for a brass festival brought back not just great memories, but a composition for band that is virtually unheard of outside the island.

Senior trumpeters Rob Cowan of New Fairfield and Brian Beatty of South Yarmouth, Mass., along with University Director of Bands Keith Johnston, spent part of their six-day trip playing with a community band in the historic, southern town of Jacmel, where one of the pieces they joined in on was a funeral march called “Chery.” Written by the 19th century Haitian classical composer Occide Jeanty, the piece was “captivating,” said Johnston, who immediately knew it needed to be brought to a larger audience.

“It’s such a compelling piece. I couldn’t believe I had never heard it before,” Johnston added. “The Sacred Heart Band will play it as part of a performance at the end of March. I’m in the process now of researching the history of this piece, but it looks as though it’s never before been played outside of Haiti, and this may be one of the few copies of this work in existence.” He noted that much of Jeanty’s band works disappeared in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

Most of the students’ and Johnston’s time in Haiti, however, revolved around rehearsing for, and then performing in, a brass festival sponsored by the Holy Trinity School of Music in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Before the earthquake that devastated so much of Haiti, Holy Trinity was a large complex composed of a music, elementary, secondary and trade school and Episcopal cathedral. Today, school rooms are made up of 2-by-4s and tin roofs as Episcopal diocese and volunteer workers attempt to both carry on classes and slowly rebuild.

Rob Cowan rehearses with
musicians at the school. “The school looks like a scene from a war movie, with rubble everywhere. Haiti is still recovering, and the process is slow,” Johnston said. “But through it all, the Haitian people have never stopped making music. There, music isn’t just a diversion or for entertainment. It’s an expression of who they are; an everyday part of life that, just like food, nourishes them. It meant so much to be part of this festival, which culminated with a large, free public concert. It was amazing.”

“It was a great trip, but there was definitely some culture shock. It was hard to see so many people living in refugee camps. They are way worse off than we are,” Beatty said.

There was also a language barrier, but the mutual love of music overcame it. “They always want to practice their instruments. They would practice 10 hours a day,” Beatty said, adding that the students there don’t have the option of spending leisure time playing video games or surfing the Internet.

He added that the concert was a great experience, and he especially appreciated the painting he (and the others) received as thank-you gifts. “I’m going to hang it on my wall as reminder of this experience,” he said.

Johnston, who’s volunteered and taught at Holy Trinity since 2008, plans to continue Sacred Heart’s participation in the brass festival in future years. However, it was likely the only University-sponsored trip for Cowan, a business and political science major, and Beatty, a biology major, as both will graduate in May.

“But what great memories they brought back. I’m certain that their interactions and experiences in Haiti had as much of an impact on each of them, as they had on the lives of these Haitian musicians. That’s how a dialogue and understanding starts, and that’s how change for the better can happen,” Johnston concluded.