Haiti: Singing to Push Back the Dark

St. Andre’s Episcopal Church and School, Hinche, Haiti, Easter Eve, 1999. The first fire at Easter is being kindled in the dark at the back of the church, and it truly is dark, as the town generator is not, for the time being, producing electricity. The congregation sings Easter hymns at top volume, tunes and harmonies learned by heart, accompanied by the choirmaster, Maclay, playing a trumpet. We follow the familiar tunes and unfamiliar French words as best we can. Four candles are in the procession; a few more are lit when the procession reaches the front of the church. There is not much light to go around. It is the beautiful singing which pushes back the dark.

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church and School, Locorbe, Haiti, Easter Day, 1999.
It is the next day, and the three-hour Easter morning service, with some 400 people in attendance, is drawing to a close. The church is made of four upright poles with banana and palm leaves suspended above for shade, an old army tent shading the altar area. The four (!) very capable choirs have each sung by turns throughout the service, and now it is time for the best of the best, the pride of the parish—twelve young men singing in close harmony, dancing in unison to their song. The congregation beams its approval. Christ has been raised from the dead; Easter has been sung into being again at St. Patrick’s.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and School, Caracol, Haiti, April, 2006.
A hot and arduous two-and-a-half hour hike from the nearest road and electricity, St. Paul’s sits partway up a steep hill, commanding an enviable view of the Haitian terrain over which one hikes to get there. A bride and groom, dressed with dazzling elegance, are sitting with the rest of the congregation on hand-hewn benches in tidy rows, singing hymns as they wait for the priest, hiking up the hill to perform the ceremony. We are still half an hour and one deep valley away, but in the quiet of the Haitian countryside we can hear the voices, singing to bless the occasion, singing to pass the time.

Curious friends want to know, what did you notice when you visited Haiti? The music, music, music—raucous, quiet, beautiful—blared over a loudspeaker; sung elegantly by the choirboys of Les Petites Chanteurs at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral; cheerful songs sung by children walking home from school arm-in-arm, singing to make the trail shorter; rara bands playing in the streets for Carnival or rocking the crowd dancing in bars and at revivals; preschoolers singing songs about letters and numbers all morning long, as the only classroom equipment for them is one chalkboard, one teacher, and their own minds and voices. And art—color, beauty, vivid Haitian paintings for sale, pink and green striped houses, a carefully-tended bougainvillea outside a three-walled home. Haitians are reminded of their extreme poverty constantly by the rest of the world. Yo di nou se pov—They say that we are poor. But looking at flowers is free; singing songs learned by heart is free.

The early reports from Haiti after the earthquake were scant on details, and for those of us anxious to hear about loved ones and familiar places, the frustration of not being able to “find out” was intense. One observation, though, which ran through so many early accounts, and which resounded in the ears and hearts of everyone who has ever visited Haiti, was the report of the sound of crowds of people singing together after darkness fell. Thousands of people, huddled together, sleeping on the streets and in any open spaces they could find, were singing familiar hymns and songs in the darkness. They were singing to comfort each other, and to comfort the loved ones still trapped in the rubble. They were singing with equal measures of hope and grief, joy and sorrow. They were singing because Haitians know their music by heart. They were singing to pass the time. They were singing to push back the dark.