Chicago cellist and entrepreneur Tom Clowes took his first trip to Haiti in 2000 to teach Western music to Haitian students, but also fell in love with their culture, and has returned nearly every year since. Along the way, he discovered something surprising about Haitian music.
“I learned that Haitian composers of ‘art’ music or ‘classical’ music have been around for hundreds of years, that their work is stunningly beautiful, and that their existence was virtually unknown to all but a handful of scholars,” says Clowes. “I also became increasingly upset with how Haiti was represented in the media, so that it became almost synonymous with natural disasters, poverty and corruption. I don’t want to downplay the challenges Haiti goes through, but this image of the country bears virtually no resemblance to the Haiti I experience every year, which is a country rich in history, religion, social networks, art, music and religion.”
I have to confess that prior to meeting Clowes many years ago, I was one of those people who, whenever Haiti was mentioned, primarily thought of natural disasters, Sean Penn or “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which I read at an impressionable age and has haunted me ever since.
Shortly after the devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Clowes was invited to go on WBEZ. He asked several Haitian friends what they wanted him to focus on; he expected them to ask for food, water and help with shelter, but instead they asked him to share the story of how Haitians came together after the disaster.
They wanted the story told of how “people risked their lives running into collapsed buildings to save others; how you could hear people singing hymns all day and night; how youngsters would study by candlelight because they didn’t want to fall behind in school. Haitians wanted their humanity recognized. And of course they were right. Billions of dollars of disaster aid was wasted by foreigners who didn’t acknowledge the humanity, or the expertise, of Haitians as the people uniquely knowledgeable about, invested in and capable of repairing Haiti.”
This was a formative experience and the following year Clowes started Crossing Borders Music to share with Chicago audiences not only Haitian music, but also stories of the people and their culture.
Since then, the organization has moved beyond programming exclusively Haitian composers and has expanded its mission to include underrepresented composers from many different cultures not normally associated with classical music. The emphasis on promoting the dignity of people from all cultures through music, however, remains a paramount focus.
Their concert on August 3 is a case in point. Part of the city’s priceless Nights Out in the Parks series, “Music and Stories Around the World” features storytelling and music-making drawing on fascinating musical figures from different world cultures.
Each piece is accompanied by a story about the composer who wrote it. The audience will hear about the legendary Armenian composer Komitas, who was also an accomplished singer, musicologist and arranger and then hear his music performed by Crossing Borders Music’s resident string quartet. music founded the Armenian national school of music and has no fewer than five landmarks named for him in his home country.
The concert will feature Peruvian composer Daniel Robles’ “El Condor Pasa,” made famous years later when Simon and Garfunkel used the tune as the melody for the song “If I Could,” the one where he’d rather be a hammer than a nail. The song was originally written as part of a zarzuela, a musical play that alternates between spoken and sung parts. Robles’ song is a celebration of the freedom of the condor, Peru’s national bird, which was meant as a contrast to the miserable conditions of Peruvians slaving in Spanish-owned mines.
Another highlight is a piece inspired by folk songs by Florence Price, a recently rediscovered African-American composer who, though performed by the Chicago Symphony during her lifetime, fell into obscurity after she was systematically ignored by most classical music institutions. The vast majority of her music was lost for decades until much of it turned up in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, discovered by a couple who were planning to renovate it. They had the presence of mind to Google the composer and turn the scores over to a scholar, and Price is now, belatedly, having her day.
Among the most poignant of offerings is “Memories,” a piece by Badie Khalegian, written in honor of his father who, as a member of the Baha’i ethnic minority group in Iran, was imprisoned for his religion. The Baha’i are forbidden, on pain of death, to study music or receive any other kind of education higher than high school.
The Haitian contribution comes from composer Sabrina C D Jean Louis in the form of a work paying tribute to Chicago’s Haitian founder Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable, a name familiar to Chicago residents.
Although it hasn’t filtered up to major institutions, there is definitely an emerging trend in younger ensembles toward performing the works of women and composers of color who have been neglected by the classical music world. But Crossing Borders Music does something unique by not only finding and performing neglected works by composers who absolutely should be better known, but presenting them within the cultural context in which they were created through storytelling.
Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. The cultural and socioeconomic conditions in which artists live absolutely affects their work, and the same is true of classical music. We might know that the Napoleonic Wars affected Beethoven, but when we move away from our Eurocentric point of view, we find that we know a whole lot less about the art and conditions of other cultures. Crossing Borders Music is out there to remedy that.
The free concert takes place in Homan Park August 3 at 3pm.
Seth Boustead is the founder and Executive Director of Access Contemporary Music, where he has produced more than a hundred live concerts and created the Sound of Silent Film Festival, the ACM School of Music, the Thirsty Ears classical music street festival and many more programs designed to present classical music as, well, fun. Seth is the voice of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Minute video series, and he has given a TEDx talk about the future of classical music, which he persists in thinking is not bleak. He is also the creator and host of Relevant Tones, the country’s only weekly syndicated radio program about contemporary composers.
Contact: email@example.com | Website: sethboustead.com