Haitian-born music educator Jean Montès was conducting an orchestra rehearsal in New Orleans on Jan. 12, 2010 when he received a text message saying a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had hit his homeland. It was two days before he learned his parents, who live in Port-au-Prince, were alive.
"It was my mom's birthday that day; that's what saved them," says Montès, director of orchestral studies at Loyola University and music director of the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestras (GNOYO). "Usually they would have been working. That day [my father] was supposed to take her out for ice cream. She showed up early (at the school where he works). They had just walked out of the building when it happened. The place he had been sitting was all collapsed.
"As he was leaving, there were kids calling his name, and then they were under the rubble." Falling debris hit his mother in the head, requiring several stitches, and his father had scrapes and bruises, but otherwise they were OK.
The earthquake left unimaginable devastation behind: 300,000 dead, approximately the same number injured and more than 1 million people homeless. More than a year later, rebuilding of this perennially impoverished island nation continues to move slowly. But that hasn't stopped Montès from addressing the crisis with his own hands. Last year, through his Haitian Youth Music Relief program, Montès personally delivered 500 musical instruments to students in Haiti — kids who saw their schools, homes and cities destroyed. For Montès, it was a small contribution, but one he knew he had to make — especially once he saw the destruction of his homeland firsthand.
"The reality of the place cannot be explained," he says. "You see images on TV that are snapshots, but when you drive through, you see house after house after house flattened — and they know there are people under there. They don't have the means to remove the rubble; there's just too much. And (people who walk past it every day) have to try to go on and live their life.
"The situation is that people have stabilized into finding ways to survive the conditions they're in. I have friends and colleagues still living in camping tents. There is no FEMA. There is work for a lifetime down there. The task is so humongous, people freeze. But if everyone tries, it's going to make a big difference."
Montès grew up in Haiti, and his interest in music started early. His father, an Episcopal priest, was known to have the best choir in the diocese, and Montès' community gave him the tools he needed to become a world-class conductor and musician. Decades later, working out of his offices at Loyola University and the GNOYO, Montès is leveraging his stateside success to give back something meaningful. His Haitian Youth Music Relief program is grounded in the cultural and spiritual connections that have existed for centuries between Haiti and New Orleans, and it mirrors his work as artistic director of the GNOYO.
In his day job he serves as director of orchestral studies and coordinator of strings at Loyola, where he conducts three student orchestras. It was at Loyola that the idea for Haitian Youth Music Relief arose spontaneously on the evening following last year's earthquake. Montès had gathered his many Haitian students for mutual support, and to give them a chance to reflect on what happened. They spoke of the voices that were undoubtedly lost and resolved to do something to celebrate them.
"In terms of relief, there's what we think of as the primary needs — health, shelter, food," Montès says. "But what happens next? What makes us feel human again when we've lost everything? It's usually things like music." Montès and many of his Haitian students first learned to play at the Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince, which was destroyed in the earthquake. "I grew up sharing a school instrument with three to five other students," he says. "If I was still alive after the earthquake and someone showed up with an instrument and said it was mine, at first I wouldn't believe it. It would make a huge impact on helping me cope with reality."
Montès started fundraising by sending a single letter to friends describing the need for good, functional instruments, asking recipients to pass around the letter. His idea was to start a grassroots movement and create one-on-one connections between donors and individual music students. The response was immediate — the first donation was a violin from a 10-year-old member of the GNOYO who had suffered losses during Hurricane Katrina — and Montès says he soon received "an avalanche of instruments." He knew the valuable and fragile collection would require hand delivering.
"So many people wanted to go we had to have a selection process," Montès says. Eight student volunteers got to make the trip in March 2010, and Montès went back by himself in May, hand-delivering a total of 500 instruments last year. Those one-to-one connections were made permanent by the photos and personal letters student musicians sent back to donors.
Once in Haiti, Montès tapped into a remarkably efficient network. He first connected with the kids from Holy Trinity, which has an orchestra, but now also works with other schools that have more modest music programs. "I have a list of kids who need instruments from the last trip," Montès says. "If I landed in Haiti right now, within an hour I'd have 300 to 600 kids coming to me. It's amazing." It does, however, take time to match up instruments and kids. To ensure the proper fit, Montès conducts impromptu auditions on the street. "They have to play something for me right there" to get a desired instrument, he says.
The logistics of the relief program can be daunting. Montès made arrangements with a commercial airline to check oversized boxes holding 20 to 30 carefully packed instruments. "My dream would be to find someone who has a plane and was willing to take me and a couple of volunteers down there and drop us. We'd find our own way back," Montès says. "It's not complicated or sophisticated. It's a very humanitarian mission. I'd like to do three trips a year." Since last year's relief trips, more than 1,000 additional donated instruments have arrived in New Orleans, plus music books and related items. Montès plans to deliver more instruments to Haiti in March and April.
Montès says he can't help but see himself in these kids. He started playing piano at age eight, cello at 10, and by 13 he had joined Haiti's National Orchestra. "As a youngster I explored the world through my cello. I played music by composers from many different countries. It opened my world, just being on that little island with my instrument."
That cello, however, belonged to the school he attended. The instruments he takes to Haiti are given to individual children. "I grew up in Haiti, and I never had an instrument of my own," Montès says. "After something so catastrophic happening ... it would do a lot of good for them to get an instrument of their own. This is something they did before the earthquake, and it allows them to get back to playing music, doing something normal."
Montès says he now has a number of people working on creating a new music education system in Haiti's schools as they rebuild, despite limited resources. "It's not an impossible task," he says. "You can start with singing and music appreciation. When you're older, if you show aptitude and interest, you can get selected for an instrument. That's how I started at Holy Trinity."
In 2007, Montès came to New Orleans to interview for the job at Loyola after an academic career that took him through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa. He had guest-conducted orchestras all over the world but hadn't previously found his way to New Orleans, despite a keen awareness of the city's historical ties to Haiti. Like all Haitian kids, he grew up speaking two languages: French and Creole.
"When Haitian independence happened, a lot of freed slaves came to New Orleans," he says. "I now meet people in New Orleans all the time that speak very close to the same Creole I spoke in Haiti, especially the older people. It's a big connection." Montès' personal connection to New Orleans was immediate: "As soon as I stepped into New Orleans I felt at home, just the vibration of the city. The people are open, and they talk to you. I breathe better when I'm here."
Now in his fourth year as artistic director of the GNOYO, Montès has found another meaningful link between Haiti and New Orleans. "The kids of New Orleans are much more like Haitian kids than those of any other place in the United States," he says. "There's a sense of creativity and enlightenment about music because they've been exposed to it." his experiences with the 250 young musicians in the GNOYO program have focused his passions on improving arts education in New Orleans, first by setting the right example with his students.
GNOYO members move through a 12-level system that always includes private lessons with a professional musician, public recitals and a juried performance at the end of each year. The program's Young Artists Academy starts kids as early as first grade. "The idea is that this is a long-term project," Montès says. "You can only get so far without a great technical foundation on your instrument. And you don't reach your full potential just by being talented."
He would like to see a stronger public commitment to arts education in New Orleans, and he believes the success of the youth orchestra could be replicated all over the city, possibly in community recreation centers. "Sometimes we take our musical traditions for granted here," Montès says. "But music is one of the most tangible gifts you can give to a young person. Kids learn how to be team players. When you relate that to your life, you understand that you have to contribute to your community." Montès makes sure his kids understand that young musicians of high caliber are widely recruited by law and medical schools. "That transfer to other life skills is the most precious part," he says. "Kids come out equipped for the world."
In 2009, the advanced level of the GNOYO traveled to New York to play at Carnegie Hall. Montès believes the experience revealed the unique potential of local kids. "We did a concert that reflected New Orleans," he says. "We started classical, went all the way to jazz and added a Haitian piece. People went nuts; they'd never heard a symphony orchestra perform like this. And it could only have come from New Orleans. I've been to other places where kids play classical and jazz, but in those places you can't dance in the street — you'll get arrested. You can't express yourself the same way without the culture we have here. And it can lead to more interesting and vibrant artists than other places turn out.
"They say it's the birthplace of jazz. Well, how did that happen? Let's go back and find out and cultivate that in our young people."
A photo essay on the Haitian Youth Music Relief program is on display at New Orleans' Contemporary Arts Center through Feb. 27. For more information about Haitian Youth Music Relief, or to make a donation, visit www.haitianyouthmusicrelief.org.