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The great songwriter Irving Berlin could only play the piano in one key, F sharp. The musicians in Deschapelles, Haiti, had a similar situation: they could only play in B flat-but all that has now changed, thanks to Essex resident Patricia Hurley and Sister Cities Essex Haiti (SCEH).
Founded in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the goal of SCEH is to establish a mutually sustainable relationship between Essex and both the people of Deschapelles and Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, which is located there. The hospital was founded by the mother and stepfather of Essex resident Jenifer Grant and Grant has long been involved in its support.
Hurley, a retired school music teacher and the founder of the Community Music School in Essex, worked in Haiti with a local band called a fanfare for a concert to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer. According to Grant, fanfares are common throughout Haiti and are often called upon to play at funerals. The fanfare in Deschapelles, which played totally by ear, was eager to polish music-reading skills and learn new music.
The fanfare also needed instruments to replace some that were borrowed and some that were battered. Essex resident Stu Ingersoll, who buys and sells musical instruments, provided a few to Grant at an affordable price. Oboe player Karen Birch Blundell, who gave a concert several months ago to benefit SCEH, was able to get other funds to buy instruments through a national sorority of musicians that has an outreach program.
By the time the group left for Haiti, it had a collection that included several drums, two trumpets, two clarinets, a flute, an alto saxophone, and a baritone horn. The baritone did double duty, since Grant had packed some well-packaged frozen pork roast in its bell.
Getting the bass drum into Haiti was particularly challenging. Safety regulations prohibit items that come in cartons; other regulations stipulate that even suitcases must be no wider than 62 inches. Grant packed the drum in a carton that she camouflaged with a cover and handle to make it look like a suitcase, but still it was one inch too long; luckily no one at customs noticed.
The group from SCEH included not only instruments and music, but musicians, as well, who practiced and performed with the local fanfare. Old Saybrook's Roger LeCompte, a member of the SCEH contingent, and Grant herself both play in an adult group at the Community Music School. Hurley sometimes got out her own trumpet. Teenagers Alec Goodrich and Nick Smith, both of Essex, played trumpet, trombone, and substituted on drums. Grant's grandson Reid Kellogg, a Colorado native, also played trumpet. Completing the SCEH group were the teen musicians' mothers Kathleen Maher, Terry Smith, and Kate Kellogg.
Hurley had no idea what the skill level of the musicians would be and what kind of music to bring. She settled on a level-two band book and well-known pieces, some arranged by the Community Music School's Tom Briggs. She showed the Haitian instrumentalists fingerings for new keys, taught them the intricacies of reading sheet music, including such things as repeats and second endings, and she encouraged them to try new dynamics. The fanfare was accustomed to playing all songs as loud as it could.
There was no question, Hurley said, of their enthusiasm or their musicality. Roger LeCompte said after he heard the fanfare he felt it was he who would derive musical benefit from playing with the musicians.
There were rehearsals every morning for the week that the SCEH volunteers were in Deschapelles. Evening rehearsals scheduled for five o'clock were more of a problem because the afternoon rain beating on the tin roof of the building where practice was held sometimes made it impossible to hear. Even with clothespins holding music to stands, the wind was so strong that on at least one occasion it blew the sheets away.
For the concert that Hurley conducted, the band had a special surprise: a parade to the recital that featured a drum major and more than a dozen young majorettes, who enthusiastically danced their way to the performance.
The music project was important to SCEH, says Grant, because it showed the Haitian community the commitment of their American partners. Demonstrating that commitment was significant because SCEH plans to cooperate with a local group in Deschapelles on the construction of a library that has run into unforeseen stumbling blocks. The Haitian group involved in the construction determined that the cattle barn that SCEH had hoped to renovate for the facility was not suited for the project. Now, SCEH and its local partner are looking for land on which to build the library.
In the meantime, the fanfare in Deschapelles had a request for the SCEH volunteers. They wanted the conductor whom they called Maestro Paddy to return for another concert. Hurley, for her part, said the concert she has already conducted has left her with an indelible memory. One of the pieces she brought with her was a well-known song from The Sound of Music that celebrates a small flower that grows in a climate very dissimilar to Haiti's tropic humidity.
"To hear 'Edelweiss' being played in all that heat is something I will never forget," Hurley said.