It was so good to see friends in El Tejar today. I caught a public bus (they are known as ‘chicken buses’) to Chimaltenango, then switched and caught another to El Tejar and walked back into the neighborhood to the school, which is called ‘CEDIN’. After hugs and general checking in, I walked to the principal’s house for lunch with her and some Italian volunteers who are working at the school.
Back at the school later, the youth in the music program put on a wonderful concert for me, and it was great to hear them play again. My favorite part, though, was after they were done with their presentation and we started to play together just for fun. First Pepe, who graduated from the program there and is now in school in Guatemala City studying to be a music teacher, started playing a popular song and all the girls jumped in singing. Kenny jumped back onto the drums and off they went. Then they asked me to play a few songs that we had performed together when they toured North Carolina in 2012. It was great fun.
This is the only program PEG has in Guatemala that focuses on music rather than literacy and critical thought. It began in 2007 when Jennifer Pickering, director of the LEAF festival, came to me and said we might want to do a project together. LEAF International, a non-profit outreach program of the Lake Eden Arts Festival, has projects in several countries, and Jennifer wanted to talk about whether we could develop something together in Guatemela. Of course, it’s never a good idea to build a program for its own sake, but it seemed worthwhile to ask a few people whether there might be a good fit. I’m no stranger to the transformative power of music, and I thought that if there was a place that could benefit from developing a music program, which is the kind of work that LEAF does, we should look into it.
I spoke with John Van Keppel from Child Aid who said he might know just the place. Many conversations later, LEAF and PEG began a partnership, with the steady and helpful support of Child Aid, at a preschool in El Tejar, a small pueblo outside of Chimaltenango. The music program would serve the small children with age-appropriate music instruction and fun singing and rhythm instruments, and would also develop a band program for high school age youth, teaching them mandolin, guitar, recorder, percussion and even marimba. The band is called ‘Las Estrellas de El Tejar,’ The Stars of El Tejar.
The initial music teacher, Sara, was later joined by an assistant, Estefany, and they have built a beautiful program. Five years later, in fact, they had gotten so good that Jennifer invited them to perform at the LEAF festival in western North Carolina. We added a few other shows, including a concert at Duke University, and a three-day residency at North Buncombe Middle School, and suddenly we had a concert tour on our hands.
PEG and LEAF have split the costs of the program since it began in 2007, and plan to continuing doing so. The plan is for the kids to come back to play at LEAF again in May of 2015, and in the meantime we have some fun plans for a teacher exchange with the LEAF International music program in Costa Rica, and a masters’ class with some musicians from Antigua who will come to spend a day with the kids.
It’s true, of course, that music is a universal language. It was powerful to see audience members in tears when the kids came to play in North Carolina. Their music and their open hearts are almost overwhelming. Stay tuned for more.