It began with a drum. A small, half-broken, heavily-stained bongo drum. The kids would fetch it from the office every evening and pass it around on during devotions.
As a former musician, it didn’t take me long to notice how good the drumming was. Kids as young as six would pound those drums with their palms, the side of their hands, their fingertips, producing different sounds from the skins, speeding up or slowing down with ease.
So I got a second set of bongo drums. And a third. Then I began to bring down a donated drum set, a piece at a time. One trip a snare drum. Next trip a cymbal.
Eventually we had a whole kit, which the kids lined up to try. Then a guitar was added. Then I brought down a keyboard.
“Can I play?” became a common refrain. And each new budding musician inspired another. Can I play? Soon, with so many kids interested, we were accepting donations of anything musical from anywhere we could get them.
A former embassy worker gave us her cello. A Haitian friend brought by a violin. A local Detroit music store called Huber and Breeze sent down flutes, electric guitars, bass guitars. Can I play? Can I play?
Then came the game-changer. A man named Dennis Tini, who’d retired from his job as chairman of the music department at Wayne State University, agreed to pay a visit and take a look at our kids.
That was several years ago.
He has never stopped coming.
Call it luck, passion, or the kindness of strangers who happen to be musicians, but thanks to Prof. Tini’s constant teachings — and the boundless dedication of our kids — I believe the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage is the most musical children’s home in the country.
We have an entire large room just dedicated to music instruction. It houses guitars, drums, strings, keyboard and wind instruments. We’ve got accordions. Ukuleles. Recorders. Saxophones.
It was hugely satisfying to hear the squeaks, plings, smacks and boom-booms coming from that music room year after year. But the most fun started one day when I had a bunch of the teenaged kids around me, and I said, “You know what? We should form a band.”
Their eyes lit up.
From that moment to today, we have grown into our own little Motown studios. There is a teenage boys band, a teenage girls band, an early and pre-adolescent band and a group called “Future Stars” made up of younger kids with various talents.
Having been in several bands when I was in high school, I knew the camaraderie of making music. I believe it is unlike any other. Performing it is a second language, a rapturous communication that makes you smile uncontrollably with a well-played lick on guitar, or a surprising fill from the drummer, or a high note hit by the lead singer.
Music is joy. Children are joy. Children making music bangs the joy meter like a hammer in a seaside arcade, shooting it up until the clangs the top bell.
Let me take you through the first rehearsal. The boys, from 13 to 17, filled the room and meandered to instruments. Appoloste knew a few chords on piano. Good enough. Kiki knew a few chords on guitar. Good enough. Louvenson was a natural drummer. Great. J.J. agreed to try the bass. Now we’re cooking.
A boy named Jonathan Ulysees (who we call J.U. to distinguish him from J.J.) has a high-pitched voice and a natural showmanship. We made him the lead singer.
And we launched into our first effort: “Do You Love Me?” by the Contours, an early 1960’s tune out of Motown – where else? – that starts with a spoken reflection:
“You broke my heart
Cause I couldn’t dance
You didn’t even want me around
But now I’m back
To let you know-
I can really shake ‘em down.”
We had J.U. try this. Since we didn’t have any microphones, we had him sing it into a large green comb.
It was perfect.
From that initial attempt, the boys have grown into a semi-polished unit with a repertoire big enough to fill an hour-long set. They’ll try anything. A James Brown song (“I Feel Good”), a One Direction song (“Steal My Girl”) oldies (“Rave On”, “Hit the Road Jack”) reggae (“Buffalo Soldiers”) holiday songs (Bruce Springstein’s “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” ) even spirituals (“I’ll Fly Away.”)
They call themselves The Hermanos Brothers (hermanos being Spanish for “brothers”, which technically makes them The Brothers Brothers.) But you can never have too much brotherhood. And they play with a sense of family, sharing the vocals, splitting verses, moving around on the instruments to give others a try. They even blend in a violinist, because Widley, a 16 year-old with incredible study habits and discipline, has made the violin his own. No problem. You can always work a violin into a reggae tune, right?
The teenage girls were the next to form an ensemble. There are seven of them, so they labeled themselves “Destiny Seven.” They are partial to pop songs that I have to learn (“Girls Like Us” by Zoe Wees) and old girls group songs (“Please Mr. Postman” “Mr, Lee,”) which they teasingly call “Mr. Mitch’s music.”
The middle-aged group, affectionately named “Tet Chaje”, (which is creole for “Troublemakers”) will pretty much sing anything. They’ve gone from “Jingle Bells’ to “Yellow Submarine” to “You are My Sunshine.”) They mix boys and girls, too young to have much distinction between their voices.
And our newest group, The Future Stars, just perfected an incredible version of “Que Sera Sera,” where all the instruments and vocals were done by them, despite their youth.
Mixed in with all of this are Haitian songs, French songs, religious numbers and folk tunes. It all culminated last year in the first of what has become a tradition: the school steps concert.
This is where we drag all the instruments from the music room, set them up on the school patio (one of the few places where you can count on shade) and perform a multi-tiered concert, where the bands run on and off the “stage” to do their rehearsed numbers.
You know the best part? Not the singing, which is getting better all the time, or the playing, which is advancing with each show.
It’s the way they root each other on. There is no battle of coolness, no held-back applause out of concern that those clapping might not get as much love as the current band. Just unbridled glee at hearing each other perform. They clap in the hot sun. They jump up and dance on fast numbers. And there are always huge ovations when the bands finish.
It has gotten to the point where we do a concert every month, that’s how much they love it, that’s how musical the orphanage has become. What started with a bongo drum has blossomed into a variety show.
And inevitably, when the show is over and the equipment has been stored and life is returning to normal, I will hear a five-year-old walking through the yard alone, singing a line they never heard until that day (“Please Mister Postman look and see…”) And with that I know the special magic got through, the way music always does, from the most meager beginnings, straight to the heart.
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