It’s been nearly a year since January’s devastating earthquake in Haiti. More than a million residents remain homeless and a recent outbreak of cholera has claimed over 1,300 lives. But the dreams of a select group of young Haitian musicians may become a reality thanks to a unique aid effort.
This past July, Julia Gregoire (LAW’11) and Ruha Devanesan (LAW’09, GRS’10) traveled to Port-au-Prince with two recent Tufts University graduates to hold open auditions for unknown Haitian musicians in a contest called Haiti Sings. Sponsored by an initiative of the nonprofit Internet Bar Organization (IBO) called PeaceTones, the contest’s aim is to discover talented new artists from developing nations and give them the legal tools to build successful careers
“Our goal was to find talented artists whose music and lives reflect their country’s rich culture, complex history, and inspirational inner strength,” says Devanesan, vice president and executive director of IBO.
Auditions were held and 19 finalists selected. Each contestant wrote and performed an original song. The music ran the gamut from rap to gospel and even drumming. Online voting began October 1 on the PeaceTones Facebook page and continues through December 10. (Videos of the contestants’ performances can be viewed there.) The winner will be flown to New York City to perform live with the famous Haitian group Tabou Combo and will also have the chance to record a full-length album in Boston.
PeaceTones not only gives much-needed visibility to musicians, but trains them on their legal rights and on marketing techniques and distributes their work internationally.
Gregoire, who speaks French, led the summer workshop on legal rights and marketing skills, covering areas such as intellectual property rights and contract formation to prepare the musicians for careers and ensure protection of their work.
“Most musicians admitted to relying solely on oral contracts and never considered drafting a document,” says Tufts graduate and PeaceTones director Valerie Schenkman. “We wanted to keep the training general enough so that it was applicable internationally and valuable on a personal level for the artists.”
Regarding marketing, the workshop encouraged the musicians to use social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to reach a wide audience. Schenkman has already seen Facebook pages pop up from several participants.
The PeaceTones initiative gave Gregoire, Devanesan, and the other PeaceTones emissaries the opportunity to experience firsthand both the chaos caused by the earthquake and the resilience of its victims. They spent much of their time in three large encampments crammed with temporary shelters for homeless Haitians.
“What we saw there moved most of us to tears,” says Gregoire. “Tent upon tent upon tent, all makeshift, with wooden poles sticking out here and there and pieces of the tents flapping in the wind.”
Despite these conditions, the musicians and their families welcomed the group with warmth and graciousness. The Americans interviewed the families to learn more about the contestants, their lives, and their love of music.
“The musicians we met along the way on the trip were inspirational,” says Gregoire. “Each and every one was so excited to be involved in the contest and have the chance to work on their passion and talents for music.”
The PeaceTones members hope that the voices of these Haitian artists will now be heard and their tremendous talent recognized.
“Look at what these musicians are putting their heart and soul into,” says Schenkman. “Their stories are moving, and they are extremely generous with their time and space. They deserve to be heard.”
Vote in the Haiti Sings contest at the PeaceTones Facebook page by clicking on Vote Now to see contestants’ videos and vote for your favorite, or vote by emailing email@example.com with your daily selections. Final round ends Friday, December 10. View artist biographies here.
Tom Vellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.