There are two parts to this piece. Part one takes the form of a short video found here.
The second part is found below:
"I'd like to jump on the flatbed truck this morning. I'd like to go with the team to the Port au Prince city morgue, where we'll spend several hours collecting abandoned, decaying bodies, while singing, drinking rum and smoking cigars, before taking those rotting bodies out into the countryside, to bury them there by the sea while the brass band plays... but there's just too much going on today."
Strange as it sounds, I used to have this thought every Thursday morning. I've managed to get away to the morgue a handful of times over the years, but mostly I stay back to help with the living. Since 2010 I've served as an Assistant Director to the leadership of The St. Luke Foundation and NPH Haiti. These Haitian-led programs include three hospitals, a women's health clinic, several orphanages, 30 schools, job creation, housing, and clean water programs, and more. There has always been plenty to do.
While I don't join the team at the city morgue every week, I do go to mass each morning at our own chapel. At first I went to mass because of Father Rick, the founder of NPH Haiti and St. Luke.
He is not your average priest.
Father Rick, who is also a doctor, is a miraculous man with transcendent talents and an inspiring faith and humility. During his homilies he plays with words as an artist does, weaving together an anecdote about Abe Lincoln's childhood, Salinger's Franny and Zooey, the Eightfold Path, the story of a patient he treated the night before, and a thought he had while driving the forklift last week, without blinking. And while he is as poetic as anyone I know, there is a truth in his words that goes beyond the sort of truth that lives in things that are purely poetic.
As time passed, mass wasn't about Father Rick any more. Months went by, and as earthquake victims stopped appearing at mass, and cholera victims tragically took their place, nearly each morning's mass became a funeral. These funerals were for patients, for staff, for friends and family of staff, for friends in Cite Soleil; for people from all over. It is still rare to come to the chapel at 7:00 and find no bodies there. While I deeply appreciated Father Rick's homilies, they were replaced with something else. For me, mass is about my Haitian friends, their community, their mourning, their strength, and their music.
I recall a funeral mass with a grown man sitting in the middle of the floor next to his father, who had passed away. The man rocked slowly back and forth to the sound of the music, singing softly to himself.
I recall the few moments after a different mass, when a closed coffin was opened, and the chapel felt as though it would collapse under the weight of the noise and shouts of a family, grieving their young son with a force I'd never felt before and haven't since.
I recall a mother from the countryside, who'd been at the hospital for weeks without so much as a change of clothes, whose child had died of cancer in our hospital, squeezing my hand so hard as we sang together for her daughter. And afterwards, this mother somehow expressing gratitude to me; I who had done nothing but hold her hand.
I recall one morning with just Father Rick, Esther and I in attendance. The night before we'd found a friend, 16-year-old Cliff, dead on the street. We'd cleaned and dressed him late that night, drinking rum and singing. That morning my head spun with remnants of rum and my hands shook, looking down at Cliff in his borrowed coffin, lying there in my clothes. Esther's voice, Esther's hand, kept me steady.
Esther sings in the chapel each day, and Esther, is an inspiration. In addition to managing the morgue, comforting the families of the dead, accommodating last wishes, physically organizing the bodies, and cleaning and dressing the deceased for funerals, Esther is a singer. She has performed with Andrea Bocelli on stage in Milan. She was honored last year in New York by Kenneth Cole and Adriana Lima. She is, in every way, an artist.
I am not an expert on the music of Haiti. There are 20 or so Haitian spirituals that I've sung with Esther thousands of times in the past five years, and know by heart. For me, these songs are so completely woven into the lives of my friends in Haiti that their power is hard to describe and impossible to forget. That power is what the record is about. The songs come from Haiti, funneled through me; an inadequate but sincere conduit.
I recently read Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. In that unbelievably powerful piece of writing, he writes that "human progress has never rolled in on wheels of inevitability." That is true for all of us I think, in big ways and small. In our work, our relationships, our struggles. Real progress rarely comes on its own, a fact which is painfully evident in Haiti.
Nothing is inevitable. Not healthcare, not education, not a glass of water; nothing. Progress in Haiti takes people standing up, seeing what's in front of them, and doing something about it. And that is, for me, what the burials and the music are all about: seeing, and standing up.
One night on a short visit to NY from Haiti, I sat on a balcony in Brooklyn with a dear friend, and I told him about the burials.
"But how can you spend money on the dead?" (Note to reader: the burials represent less than one half of one percent of our budget, and even that small percentage comes from a designated fund.)
"How can you spend that time each day, each week? With so much need there, how? They're just bodies," he said.
I understood his logic, and probably shared it at some point, but he was wrong. There is profound value and purpose in what we do at the morgue, and there is power in the songs that we sing there. The people have died, but we are standing up for the living as well. And whether that yearning to stand up for life is based in Jesus, or Vodou, or a complex vision of a great spirit, or in something unclear; there is an ideal that binds us all together.
I believe that the burials and the music that fuels them are an act of defiance. With rum and cigars to fight the stench, and with songs to fight the despair, it is a defiance based on a refusal to accept the conditions as they are, and a conviction to do something about it. This is in fact what St. Luke and NPH do with all of their programs.
My relationship with my own music has wavered, ebbed, flowed, and weakened on the whole. I used to play shows and write songs quite a bit; it used to activate something in me. I'm occupied now with other things that activate and animate me, and the energy is not there for music in the same way. But I believe in art and I believe in music, and in particular I believe in this record.
Most of the album was recorded in Brooklyn at Lindbergh Palace Studios, and it features recordings from the chapel in Haiti as well. Half of the songs are English interpretations of the Haitian spirituals I love so deeply, and the other half I wrote. The songs are faithful, (think Tom Joad, not Pat Robertson) and speak to the need for hope and community in the way our own Americana tradition does. The songs in the chapel are sung each day by a group of people who are fully engaged in their communities and fully committed to finding faith, hope and love under every rock.
The 5th anniversary of the earthquake is approaching. That tragic day brought me to Haiti; it wasn't in my plans before then. I intended to stay for two months, and five years later here I am. The Haiti that I fell in love with is in these songs, songs that grow out of many acts of defiance.
My friends in Haiti do not wait for wheels of inevitability to push them forward. With no wheels in sight and with truck-sized pot holes ready to destroy any that might appear, my Haitian friends stand up each morning and set to work helping one another. When you spend time with them, there seems to be no other choice. I hope that spirit comes across in these songs.
JB and Rob, who run Lindbergh Palace Studios, donated countless hours of their time and talents. Thanks to them, the record was made for free, allowing every penny donated on its behalf to go to our hospital in Haiti. My hope is that this record can be the rare piece of art that saves a life, perhaps allowing for one less funeral, one morning with no need for these beautiful melodies.