Montserrat Foundation UK

Music Programme

Blog 1: Hello Montserrat!!

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: