Music as Sanctuary: Haitian Youth Turn to Instruments to Cope with Hunger and Rampant Gang Violence

by Sophia Chen
Afterschool Music Program in Haiti

Woodberson Seïde and his stepsister cautiously navigated the streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to reach an afterschool musical program. During their journey, they were careful to steer clear of vehicles, motorcycles, and zones under gang control—a situation so dire that it recently led to a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of an international armed force. Upon reaching the educational facility that hosts the program, 11-year-old Woodberson set aside his daily concerns, which often include eating just one meal a day. He and his family have been residing on the floor of a church since being displaced by gang activity.

Dressed neatly and eager to engage with his drum set, Woodberson joined hundreds of other children across Port-au-Prince who are immersing themselves in musical pursuits such as percussion, piano, and bass guitar. This serves as a form of emotional release, helping them cope with the surrounding violence and scarcity.

“Engaging with drums instills a sense of pride in me,” Woodberson commented.

For many in Haiti, the conditions appear bleak. The looming threat of gang recruitment hangs heavily on children as young as eight, confining them primarily to their homes. However, Woodberson and his peers, participants in a U.S.-sponsored music initiative, resist letting adversity define their future—a comfort not only to them but also to their parents.

“My son’s performances bring me immense joy,” stated Jean Williams Seïde, Woodberson’s father.

The afterschool program, initiated in 2014 by the U.S. non-profit organization Music Heals International, has grown from its humble beginnings with 60 children to a sizable group of 400. Funded at $160,000 annually, the program is offered across eight educational institutions. Many of its participants go on to perform in churches and local concerts, some even forming their own musical groups.

“In an environment as turbulent as this, the ability to offer a sliver of peace is extraordinary,” noted Ann Lee, CEO and co-founder of Community Organized Relief Effort, a California-based non-profit that sponsors the program.

Haitian musical styles vary widely, encompassing genres from rara to compas and mizik rasin. Teachers and students collaborate in selecting the types of music they wish to explore, which include an array of genres such as compas, reggae, rock, Latino, and African music.

Despite the disturbing backdrop of incessant gunfire, many participants gather twice a week for two-hour music sessions. “Music has a transformative power. It offers mental tranquility,” observed Mickelson Pierre, a former student who now instructs in the program.

Gangs are believed to exert control over nearly 80% of Port-au-Prince, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,400 individuals this year alone. The incidence of sexual assaults and kidnappings has also surged, causing families to hesitate in sending their children to educational facilities or even permitting them outdoor play. Gang activities have rendered approximately 200,000 people homeless.

In the past, Woodberson and his family lived in Canaan, a makeshift community for earthquake survivors. However, their settlement was invaded by gangs in April, forcing them to seek refuge in a Port-au-Prince church. “We lost everything when the gangs raided; we were left with nothing,” lamented Jean Williams Seïde.

Although Woodberson dreams of owning his own drum set, his father, a mail carrier, struggles to provide even basic nourishment for his four children. His mother, Nelise Chadic Seïde, earns a living by washing laundry and suffers from anemia, making the situation even more challenging. Despite these adversities, the family remains thankful for the little they have. “We may not have much, but we never go a day without sustenance,” she said.

Recently, Woodberson had the opportunity to perform a compas song. With an enthusiastic rhythm, he exemplified the essence of the musical band he is a part of, aptly named “Hope.” Following him was an all-female group, Plezi Music au Feminin, who took the stage to deliver their rendition of “Como la Flor.”

Ester Ceus, 17, another participant, expressed how playing the piano makes her feel at ease. “It brings out an energy in me I didn’t realize I had,” she stated.

According to Emmanuel Piervil, the music program manager, involvement in music has not only enhanced academic performance among participants but also alleviated parents’ fears regarding their children joining gangs.

With limited resources, instructor Raymond Jules Josue encourages students to practice rhythms by tapping on their bodies when they are not using instruments. Woodberson, always eager, often steps in as a substitute when his teacher is delayed due to obstacles such as roadblocks or gang-related disruptions.

“These educational spaces serve as lifelines, offering these children an escape from their challenging circumstances,” said Ann Lee. “It provides them a temporary haven where the dire situations they face can momentarily be forgotten.”

Reported by Coto from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Afterschool Music Program in Haiti

What is the primary focus of the article?

The primary focus of the article is on an afterschool music program in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that serves as an emotional and psychological sanctuary for young people amidst rampant gang violence and poverty.

Who sponsors the afterschool music program?

The afterschool music program is sponsored by the U.S. non-profit organization Music Heals International, with additional support from the California-based Community Organized Relief Effort.

How many children are currently enrolled in the program?

The program has grown from its initial 60 children to a current enrollment of approximately 400 students across eight different educational institutions.

What kinds of musical instruments are available in the program?

The program provides an array of instruments for students to choose from, including 90 guitars, 62 keyboards, 24 bass guitars, 15 maracas, five ukuleles, two tambourines, and a couple of cowbells.

What impact does the program have on the children and their families?

The program has been observed to improve the academic performance of participating children. It also serves as a source of comfort and pride for their families and reduces parental concern about children being recruited into gangs.

What genres of music are taught in the program?

The program is versatile in its musical offerings, covering genres such as rara, compas, mizik rasin, reggae, rock, Latino music, and African music.

How are the children coping with the prevalent gang violence?

The article highlights that while the environment is fraught with danger due to gang activity, the music program serves as an emotional outlet for the children, allowing them to momentarily escape their challenging circumstances.

Where do the families of these children live, given the gang violence?

Many families, including that of the featured child, Woodberson, have been displaced by gang violence and are currently residing in makeshift shelters like churches.

How is the program funded?

The program operates on an annual budget of $160,000, funded mainly through sponsorship by U.S. non-profit organizations.

How often do students meet for the music program?

Students in the program typically gather twice a week for two-hour music sessions, despite the backdrop of ongoing violence and instability.

More about Afterschool Music Program in Haiti

  • Music Heals International Official Website
  • Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) Official Website
  • United Nations Security Council Resolutions on Haiti
  • Haitian Musical Genres and Traditions
  • Statistics on Gang Violence in Haiti
  • Impact of Afterschool Programs on Academic Performance
  • Earthquake in Haiti: A Retrospective
  • Current State of Poverty in Haiti

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Sarah_M October 4, 2023 - 1:48 pm

this is exactly the kind of stuff we need more of. People stepping up to make a difference, ya know? So many things to worry about these days, glad there’s something positive.

Mike_91 October 4, 2023 - 4:13 pm

Unbelievable that kids have to go through this. But hey, resilience shines through, doesn’t it? This program sounds like a game-changer.

JohnDoe October 4, 2023 - 6:54 pm

Wow, this is really eye-opening. It’s amazing how music can give these kids a break from their tough lives. Kudos to the people behind the program!

RachelK October 5, 2023 - 5:34 am

Who would have thought? Music as an escape in such a harsh environment. Makes you think about the power of the arts.

TimH October 5, 2023 - 6:19 am

Great read! it’s programs like this that restore some faith in humanity. The orgs behind this deserve every bit of support.

LindaS October 5, 2023 - 9:11 am

As a parent, I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to live like this. Seeing my kid perform would mean the world to me too.

AlanJ October 5, 2023 - 11:58 am

Didn’t know about the situation in Haiti till now, and it’s devastating. Good to know theres still some hope left. We need more articles like this.


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