Montserrat Foundation UK

Music Programme

Blog 2: Two months on the island and I need a haircut! (November 2014)

We are slowly adjusting into our new environment and starting to feel this is home.

Montserrat’s population is under 5,000 and it is spread out in several small “villages” or neighbourhoods on the north and west parts of the island. There is no cinema, no shopping malls, no McDonalds or anything of the sort.  Activities are boiled down to much simpler and healthier things. You have two main options: either go on hikes, or go swimming in the sea; and both options are fantastic. The sea is crystal clear with beautiful fish and corals just off from any of the beaches. Hikes take you into lush jungle forest through trails with stunning views of the island. Each beach is different and each hike is different, so we’ve never been bored.  And the overall safety of the island is what pushes you out your door and lets you really enjoy. Cars are left with windows open, houses aren’t locked and you don’t worry about someone stealing your mobile if you leave it unattended for a minute. That says a lot for what freedom and quality of life mean, something that is sadly missing in my home country Mexico with all the social problems that are happening right now.

Socialising has taken us from Government House reunions to beach bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day to hidden bars around the island (of which some happen to lead a curious double life as Bar & Bakery or Bar & Grocery!). As adjusting goes on, getting to understand the cultural and behavioural differences is necessary and helps greatly. It’s something that takes time, but is important for proper integration and development in communities. From what I’ve observed in the island(as well as other countries I’ve lived in) as a foreigner, you either stay in your own tower of comfort and communicate with people from that distance, or you try to understand differences and you integrate yourself into your society at ground-level in the best way possible. The second option is always the one that takes more effort and time, but it’s obviously the most valuable. So far, I’ve come across a bit of both in Montserrat’s international community, in all levels of economical/social situations.

As we adjust as a family to this new culture, so do I adapt for teaching at the primaries and secondary. Some groups’ behaviour has improved a lot and I can say we are now on a good path towards advancing in musical knowledge and experience. With certain groups we can finally do some fun creative work at some moments. Other groups continue to be a challenge. The most drastic (and slightly comical!) situation was having been locked in the music room (hut) by some mischievous 10year old boys. It was a serious matter because we were locked in with other 20 children and the building is far away from other classrooms. Thanks to mobile phones, we were quickly let out. Despite my anger, I couldn’t help looking at it from a slight comical angle also. Probably because I was so amazed that something like that could happen. To make matters worse (or laughs better), 10 days later it happened again with a different group…

The National Youth Choir is running well. The adult division had a performance within a Gospel event at the Montserrat Cultural Centre. We had some technical problems with overhead mics plus a bit of stage fright, nonetheless it was still well received by the public. With the teenage choir we’ve started writing a song, one with a good theme. About how life and love is great, but that doesn’t mean they are perfect: through imperfections, problems and challenges, we still enjoy the ride.   A lot of the members in the group have excellent intuition for melodic material and we already have some structures for verse and chorus. I feel this is a good subject to expand on its many possible directions and hopefully this will be the first of many original songs.

Last week I played with the house band for the Calypso Monarch competition held during Christmas vacation. The way it works is that anyone in the island can sign up. The only requisite is that you write your own lyrics as well as melody, and you have to perform it yourself at the competition. Most lyrics talk seriously about political and social situations, although others play in a comical and fun way about some community problems (like One Notes’ “Be on time, don´t be late!”). The lyrics and melody are then taken to the house band and they put down the harmony progression and arrangement. It ends up being about 30 to 50 new songs composed and played to accompany the singers on stage for the eliminations during early-mid December, leading up to the finals held just before New Years Eve. The players in the house band are very able. It’s a good example of how experience and old school philosophy of “learning on the street” are so valuable and, in my opinion, an important part in today’s music education philosophies. All 40+ songs are learnt by ear and memorised in a relatively short period of time. Although the harmonies are simple, it’s still a good challenge for musical memory!

So as we start settling in properly, things start to get rolling. Next month will be filled with Christmas and Carnival preparations and rehearsals. The weather is cooling down a bit and making afternoons and evenings more enjoyable. We are slowly meeting very interesting people on the island, and some with whom I hope collaborations can start developing.

I’ll keep you posted next month as more music starts to unfold.  Here are some more pictures!

Blog 1: Hello Montserrat!! (October 2014)

It’s a tiny propeller airplane, maximum 7 people, and you have to be weighed before you are given your boarding pass which of course they don’t pickup as you board because they remember all the passengers faces. Like a mosquito flying it’s way noisily across the water, you begin to get a glimpse of a large mountain (volcano!) in the distance, and the island begins to appear. The landing was very exciting, very well worth the applause and sigh of relief that came from a few of the passengers. After clearing immigration, we were greeted very warmly and taken to what would be our house for the next year.  When the sun went down that day, an amazing pool of sound began. Mostly crickets, frogs, and birds creating a wall of sound that bring the patches of forest that border our backyard much closer to my senses. This is what every night sounds like. And every morning at around 5:30 or 6am, roosters walking around the yard or in the street let you know you don’t need an alarm clock.

Montserrat is beautiful, no doubt about it. And what makes it different to me is that it’s not your stereotypical vacation-resorts-surrounded-by-white-sand-beaches kind of place. Filled with cliffs, a few black sand beaches tucked in small bays (there is one white-sand beach), beautiful mountain range in the middle of the island, ghauts and small streams, it makes you feel tucked in by wilderness, and at the same time really gives a sense of space around you (also probably because there is only about 5,000 inhabitants in the whole island).  There is one radio station that tells you everything that’s happening in the island: local politics, festival planning, special movie showings, and even asks for all students who borrowed a ukulele last term to take it back to the secondary school. But what you hear the most is energetic Caribbean music, calypso and soka for the most part.

I had my first shot at playing steel pan a week after arriving. The simplicity of its conception and the great sound it produces makes it an incredible instrument. The high rhythmic energy of Caribbean music is really present in the teenagers and kids’ characters. I couldn’t help laughing when a few children responded to how they felt after listening to a piece I played for them. It was an arrangement for guitar of J.S. Bach’s Prelude from Suite 1 for Cello, and when asked most said it was depressing music. And although they liked more the fast brazilian samba with jazzy chords, they said it was hotel music. I love it how kids are not constrained in their comments because of social pressure. The honesty in kids makes them wonderful, and teaches us a lesson in how every kind of music should be placed on the same level of value. It also goes to show how music (and music appreciation) is completely linked to social/cultural elements. From the “out of tune” fiddle playing in the sierras of Mexico to the “out of tune” gamelan in Bali, music is appreciated and enjoyed as it is: beautiful sounds and rhythm put together by the people who create them.

The Montserrat National Youth Choir is back again, rehearsing old repertoire and starting new songs. Hats off to Becky Chalmers who did an amazing job with them! One of my goals with all the different age group choirs (kids, teens and adults) is to compose original songs with them. At first everyone is slightly intimidated with the idea, but I think we just need to get comfortable with each other after a couple of more sessions and then we can start bouncing ideas off each other. What we still need though, is some sort of theme.  We have a small performance coming up with the adult group in a gospel event for the island’s Police and Fire week. We’re working on some small arrangements to get together a short medley for that day.

I’ve got usual classes going on at the local secondary school. It’s a challenge working with early teens, but I’m sure we’ll get something going. Most are interested in percussion/drums and Caribbean rhythms. Maybe we can get a small percussion unit going. Groups at secondary are big and discipline is not their strength, especially since music is an optional side subject. The instruments at most of the schools aren’t in very good condition. Some are completely unplayable, but as with other things on the island (such as food), you just deal with what there is. And it’s always good results! Makes me think how we are used to having so many extra (and unnecessary) things in our lives.

It’s been a really interesting first month, with both exciting and challenging things happening. Adjusting to the heat, the change of pace, and the change of work is gradual. Especially with family (yes!, I forgot to mention that my wife and baby son are here also!). But it has been a wonderful experience and I’m really curious and excited as to where all the music will lead itself as the weeks and months go by.
Will keep you posted next month!

Here are some pictures, courtesy of my wifes’ Abi Kamalei Studio.  Link: