Going to Haiti was a sensory overload. The tent cities, tin slums, rubble, garbage, and sewage form a blurred tableau in my mind, and it’s difficult to discern meaning or importance from any of it specifically.
I had come to take recordings of the local music and help my grandparents, who were giving vaccines, and though I essentially accomplished what I came for, what I truly brought back with me were the faces of the people I met, from the smallest schoolchildren at Proje Espwa dressed in their pink and green uniforms, to the old maid who worked in the volunteer compound and chased chickens around with a banana frond broom.
There are faces that are more defined than others. The people I got to know personally, whom I talked to, with whom I simply shared a smile stand out in my mind.
It was my last afternoon at Proje Espwa, the orphanage where I stayed. As I emerged out of the sticky heat of my makeshift recording studio, I heard guitar and singing drifting from one of the other rooms. I went to investigate and found a guitarist and a singer sitting on some plastic chairs. I knew the guitarist a little bit; his name was Jimi, like the legend himself, and he carried a slightly out of tune acoustic guitar with him at all times. Earlier, Jimi had given me a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” on solo guitar (Jackson is huge in Haiti). The other man, in his late twenties or early thirties, was Prospere. After they finished their song, Prospere and Jimi told me they had something to record.
I had already taken down the microphone I had duct taped to a makeshift stand, so I had to sit in between the two of them and hold the microphone in my hands. I had heard the song they played before.
Jimi had played it on one of the warm evenings in the quad of the compound. It was called “Prend Ta Guitare” and it was the favorite song of Father Mark, the man who ran the orphanage. We recorded a few takes and though the guitar was a little too flat, and the microphone placement was far from ideal, the song had an endearing quality that I couldn’t quite explain.
When we finished recording I played the song back to Prospere and an unforgettable smile came across his face, one of almost childlike glee. It was a smile that seemed to defy everything I’d seen on the trip so far, a smile that communicated a glimmer of hope in a place where I had seen little.
The significance of the song itself came to me after I had already flown out. I had asked my francophone grandmother to find out the lyrics to “Prend Ta Guitare” for me and few days after I left Haiti I got the email from my grandmother with the verses. It was then that I knew why the song was Father Marc’s favorite, and why the smile and the song were tied together in my mind.
There was a repeating line in French throughout the verses that translated to “We carry the hope for a better tomorrow.” The message of hope in the song could have found no better embodiment than in Prospere’s natural voice and warm smile. They were the sound and vision of the modest hope of the song.
People from the outside who come to Haiti are often struck by the resilience of the people there. Even in Port-au-Prince with its infrastructure still in shambles, the Haitian people have sustained themselves. They’ve survived through years of exploitation and invasion by France, Spain, and the United States and they’ve survived through corrupt governments and savage treatment.
Maybe it’s that sense of modest hope in “Prend Ta Guitare” that keeps them going, the hope for a better tomorrow, which every once in a while, against all odds, puts a genuine smile on their faces.