Monday, June 1, 2009

Mother's Day in Port-au-Prince

Mother's Day in Haiti is a big deal. A very big deal. Reportedly, in many parishes it nearly ousted Pentecost this year. At the cathedral, we celebrated Pentecost very thoroughly and at great length (more on that later, perhaps), to the extent that Sr. Marjorie Raphael and I had to scoot out right after communion in order to make it to our next engagement: a concert at the convent of St. Rose of Lima to benefit the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra.

Fortunately, they started late. We slid into the back corner, behind a pillar but next to a group of fairly young blue-habited, white-veiled sisters, members of the St. Joseph's community in whose chapel the concert was taking place. I had a nice chat with a sister about my age before the concert started.

With Mother's Day in mind, the program was primarily composed of pieces about Mary, mostly 16th through 18th century European music, including seven different Ave Marias. Along with the Orchestre Philharmonique Sainte Trinite, the Petits Chanteurs (a boys' choir from Holy Trinity music school), a girls' choir, another children's choir, several soloists, and a guest trumpeter performed. Nicole St. Victor, introduced as "notre soprano nationale," was the best known of the soloists, but the mezzo-soprano, Valerie Brutus, had a wonderful voice as well. I most enjoyed Handel's The Bright Seraphim, with Mme St. Victor and the trumpeter, Jeanne Poccius, doing a sort of duet and looking as though they were really enjoying themselves during it.

After the concert, we had a short rest back at the convent, and then headed next door to the Salle Ste Cecile at the Holy Trinity Music School for a very different kind of concert, a benefit for the cathedral for maintenance of the building. As with the first, there was a prayer and speeches giving thanks to and for mothers of all kinds. The music, though, could not have been different. Although it had been explained to me as a concert, it was a "Grand Spectacle de Varietes" and included a church choir, a brass quintet, a theater group doing social commentary through drama, a singer with backup vocalists and band and dancers, and a group of four performance artists that I don't quite know how to label.

The brass quintet played classical pieces.

The choir did gospel-style music in Haitian Creole, African Christian music, and a variety of other choral pieces.

The singer, who was apparently popular and had won competitions of some sort (again, my language skills failed me there), sang a gospel version of "Jesus loves me" (in English), and several club-style numbers in French and Haitian Creole. At one point, three little girls from the audience got up on stage and were dancing around with her, having a marvelous time. She ended with a cover of "It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright, sun-shiney day" (from the 1970's?) which had everyone on their feet. Well. Everyone except one dignified elderly lady in my row who had had enough and left. I would have pictured her more clearly at the first concert.

The Salle Ste Cecile has some of the best acoustics around, a real asset not only to the school but to the community. I had thought it was new; it is not, just very well cared for. It even has a little bit of air conditioning, which you could feel upon entering, although it disappeared fairly quickly. Without it, we all would have been dripping much sooner, and I can't imagine how the artists would have been. Sr. Marie Margaret had brought two fans, and the rest of us used our programs.

It was, however, the theater group that was most striking. I had a sense of being completely over my head - a sense that, even had I understood the words, I might not have understood the play at all, so culturally specific did it seem. However, the choreography and rhythm of the piece, the chant-like nature of parts of it, the clear portrayal of poverty and misery, and the facial expressions hit me at some deep gut level. There was laughter in the audience, which confused me for a while; Sr. Marie Margaret explained that it was in appreciation of their being so very accurate in their portrayals. Dead on, to use an appropriate expression; death was central in both pieces.

We came home that evening to a late Vespers and supper, then Compline on our own. As I was reading in bed around 10:30PM (BTW, I recommend this biography of Gertrude Bell: Desert Queen. Fascinating woman!), I heard crowds coming down the street quite noisily. It had been quiet. I finally got up and went across the workroom window to see what was going on. They were all headed in the same direction, and I wondered if a concert had let out. Then I heard what sounded like shots. And I told myself, Sarah Margaret, don't let your imagination run away with you. Maybe it's just fireworks. It occurred to me that standing in front of a window wasn't the brightest thing to do if it were in fact gunfire, so I went back to my room. Hearing noise on the porch leading to the bathroom (which fortunately is on the other side of the convent), I went out and had a conversation with Sr. Marjorie Raphael. We conferred about the noise. She said that since it came from the direction of the palace, which seemed rather more lighted up than usual, perhaps they were chasing off some protesters. Well, nothing to do but stay away from windows and get some sleep; we'd find out if it were anything serious. Um. Well, indeed, what else would there be to do? So I did. And a while later, still awake, I heard her call to me from outside, "Sister, it's just fireworks for Mother's Day." Sure enough, it was.

Fireworks for Mother's Day. As I said, Mother's Day really is big around here. Next Mother's Day, perhaps I will paint my mother a card with fireworks. I will not, however, set any off.

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