Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sing your Heart Out

“Music can change the world, because it can change people” –Bono

It was a cloudy Monday, not unlike any other morning in the mountainous town of La Palma, Chalatenango.  Students’ voices resonated from every corner of the building, and the school pulsed with vivacity.  As the usual pupils from Centro Escolar 22 de Junio stood in compliance in the great hall watching the Semana Civica presentations, more children clad in varied school uniforms shuffled in, eager with anticipation for the competition that was scheduled to take place.  It was as if the crowd ebbed and flowed with its own rhythm and repartee, and although the banter seemed to dull the nerves within the participants of the Choir Genesis, their uneasy smiles told another story. 
Singing El Salvador's National Anthem in front of a packed auditorium

For the previous two weeks, the members of the newly-formed choir had been practicing daily for this competition and the moment had finally arrived when they would perform El Salvador’s National Anthem (in its entirety) in front of representatives from every school in the city. This also meant that they would be competing for the opportunity to sing at the Independence Day Ceremony the following week.

Now, if you had told me a mere 3 months ago that I would not only be witnessing but directing a choir of 30 students in El Salvador, I probably would have scoffed in your face.  During that time, I was living in the Botswana bush, wrapping up my Peace Corps service and scrambling to pick up the loose ends before my next big adventure.  Thoughts of graduate school and life in the U.S. swirled in my mind and the anticipation of what was to come became an impending weight on my shoulders.  One afternoon, I scrolled listlessly through the Response positions available throughout the world.  (I wasn’t quite ready to commit myself to facing the fast-paced life that awaited me in the U.S.) and I nearly collapsed from my chair when I found a project for a Youth Outreach Music Coordinator in Central America.  It turns out, the position had been open for some time, and they needed me just as much as I needed them. 

The music vocational project was started as a means to give children throughout the Northern catchment of Chalatenango, El Salvador safe after-school activities to keep them out of mischief that could lead to delinquency.  Lack of access to quality education is a critical challenge in the area, and as a result, the privation of job opportunities also exists. Many bright young individuals leave the country to increase their opportunities for personal development, yet fewer than 10% successfully complete high school after settling in their destination country. Those who choose to stay in El Salvador are faced with a number of difficulties, including very little economic opportunities, and often end up joining gangs, becoming involved in drug trafficking, or other criminal activities as a matter of economic survival.

As a result, Peace Corps presence is prominent throughout the area; the volunteers are well-recognized and are generally venerated for assisting in projects focusing on adolescents and youths. When I arrived to La Palma in July, the need for a music program was evident. I was struck by the amount of talent that existed throughout this town, and overjoyed at the sparked interest some students showed. Poco a poco, and through extreme moments of frustration, talk of a music program slowly transformed into a choir consisting of 23 students ranging from ages 7 to 14.

After the participants of the choir sang their last note of the Anthem during the September 8 competition, their faces lifted with pride.  Weeks had passed of tedious hour-long practices and finally they were able to feel the efforts of their labors paying off. After some quick deliberation, and anxious anticipation, the judges announced the winners and the crowd went wild to hear that the Choir Genesis would be singing at the Independence Day Celebrations the following Monday, September 15. 
The participants leapt to their feet and embraced one another with elation as the more prominent singers approached the stage and diffidently accepted the trophy.
Accepting the trophy

From that day on, more students showed interest in joining the choir.  Their sparked curiosity from the competition left them zealous and keen to begin singing.  Every day in the hallways, the participants would bombard me with hugs and inquiries as to when the choir would perform again. 

September 15 marked the long-anticipated Independence Day celebrations.  Teachers from all of the schools in La Palma arrived at the central park at 5:45 in the morning to begin preparations for the day.  The clouds rested close to the ground, the sun hid deep in the dark sky, and over my cup of atol chuco, I wondered if the weather was going to affect the singers’ moods.  When I arrived to the school a couple of hours later, a horde of eager choral students awaited me like a pack of wolves preying upon a fresh rabbit. Their enthusiasm was contagious.  I herded them into a room and we began our usual vocal warm-ups. 

As I took a deep breath, tried to refocus myself, and blocked out the surmounting noise and stress that reverberated throughout the cement classroom, I looked at a seventh-grade student braiding a third grade student’s hair and was overcome by the giggles that escaped their lips.  Their resounding smiles struck a chord deep within me and made me realize something: this choir meant more to them than a simple organized club.  Being in the group gave these children hope, unity, appreciation, and pride.  In a tumultuous world, being a part of a choral team gave them a sense of belonging and comfort where they had probably sought and been rejected before. It didn’t matter that the clouds were prophesying rain outside or that we had not yet practiced how to march for the parade. What mattered most was that they had finally found a niche where they could belong, something that they could hold onto, call their own, and be proud of.
Marching in the Independence Day Parade
The rest of the day passed quickly: the parade with the cheering crowds, the parents that awaited with cameras, and the children crooning the national anthem into microphones…but the faces that they wore throughout the day will remain imprinted in my memory for the rest of my life. I had never seen so much pride and unfettered excitement. The choir continues to gain more students after every performance, and their presentations have now expanded to encompass Día de los Niños as well as the nation-wide Concurso de las Bandas.

The choir proudly showing off their first-place trophy
One thing that the children of the Choir Genesis have taught me in these few short months is the value of music.  Music transcends age, gender, and life experience.  It is encompassing enough that it can touch any life, any subject, in any way.  For the children of La Palma, El Salvador, music has become the haven and the community that they need to begin to change their futures and the world.