Directed by the award-winning documentary filmmaker Owsley Brown (Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles; Music Makes a City), Serenade for Haiti (Serenad pou Ayiti) reveals a side of the country that is often misunderstood by the rest of the world. By focusing its lens on Father Cesar and his dedicated staff at Sainte Trinite Music School, this documentary reveals the burgeoning artistic side of the children of Haiti and their commitment to hope. Raised on the grounds of Sainte Trinite, Father Cesar has fond memories of his early childhood at the music school.
“My mother was a teacher at the Elementary School,” he remembers. “So I was always at Sainte Trinite. The director of the school—she was my godmother. I was in her office all the time, with her kids. I went to Sainte Trinite to study and started with music [when I was] two years old. It was the beginning of a long journey.”
Having grown up in the school, it is not unexpected that Father Cesar would be so passionate about music. However, what one might find surprising is that his passion for music stems from its impact on the lives of the children themselves. In fact, he believes that the gift of music offers hope to children that they might not find elsewhere.
“I use myself as an example,” he begins. “If it didn’t have Sainte Trinite to play music, I could be on the streets. Music gave me the confidence to meet other people, to work with other people, to work in harmony and discipline. It’s what the music does.”
“Music is so important for Haitians. It is a part of our lives. When we are happy, we sing. When we are sad, we sing. We dance. It’s a part of our lives. Music will never stop. Whatever the situation.”
Of course, when most North Americans think of Haiti, they immediately associate the country with the devastating earthquake that struck in January 2010, leaving millions in poverty. Originally titled the Sainte Trinite School Complex, the music school also once housed an elementary and trade school as well. With a heavy heart, Father Cesar is saddened by the many ways in which that day changed their lives.
“I can remember that day…,” Father Cesar recalls. “It was very difficult for us because we had just spent $3.5 Million for infrastructure for the school… and we lost all of that during the earthquake. During the earthquake, 50 people were at the music school and 2 people died. We didn’t know how we’d get out, if we got out. We would have died. Three days afterwards, you could hear voices trapped in the rubble in the trade school [that is associated with Sainte Trinite]. We could not say how many people died at the trade school. Could be 200. Could be 300… We lost also instruments and the only music hall of the whole country. We lost everything.”
With this in mind, he also believes that films like Serenade for Haiti can help provide a fresh perspective of hope within Haitian culture, not only to their own people but to the world as well. To him, the musical heart of the culture is essential to the nation’s healing, and creating a more positive image to those around the globe.
“This is what this film can show. What we did before the earthquake, the challenges afterward. And this is what this film can show—how music can make a difference… and to show what we are doing.”
Says Father Cesar, “Many people are shocked that, after the earthquake, we got together three days later with the teachers and I said, ‘We have to do something because now our people needs us as musicians.’ So, we started to play in different cities. After the earthquake, we used the music as a kind of therapy for our people and, at the same time, as I said to our teachers, this is what we can do. This is what we can bring to our people. This is what we can give… We try to find talent and to have the music in different schools… and to show another image of Haiti to the culture through music.”
Most importantly, however, he may actually be seeing the results of his hard work as well. By passionately pursuing the healing power of music within his culture, Father Cesar has witnessed interest in the school explode in recent years, as people search for hope in a time of challenge and change.
“[Since the earthquake], we have more people asking to be a part of the music school… We have had challenges with the lack of instruments and space since the earthquake. It is a challenging time and a transition time. Everyone accepts the situation and we try to focus on the music.”
In doing so, Father Cesar and his dedicated team continue to show that, not only is there hope in the midst of strife, they also make beautiful music together.
Serenade for Haiti is currently touring the festival circuit.