The Recorder

Bob Corbett
Jan. 1988

I am now playing the recorder. This is a wooden instrument, sort of like a straight flute. Pretty sounds too. In the movie THE MISSION there us a scene where the Jesuit missionary arrives at this primitive village high in the mountains of Peru in about the 1630s. He sits on a rock in the mist of a mountain stream and begins to play on an instrument much like a recorder. (I wish I knew the music he was playing in the scene, it is beautiful.) Crowds of hostile natives gather to listen. Actually they break his instrument at this time, but in true Hollywood fashion he continues to play exquisite music on it throughout the film.

At any rate, I had my recorder and music with me in Haiti. I had a large selection of English and traditional Christmas music which I could play fairly well. I was so excited because the Americans at the house where we live actually asked me to play for them! I couldn't believe anyone really wanted me to play. (They never sat to listen, however, they wanted it as sort of nice background music. No matter to me. It was my moment of fame and joy, I had arrived!)

So, Andre Rosier, one of my Haitian friends invited me to visit his parents' village, an extremely remote village high high in the southern mountains. We would first journey to the village/town of Leogane, one the plains just west of Port-au-Prince on the southern peninsula. From there we took another public transport in to a market town/village called Dabonne, I think. In Dabonne we rented horses and began a five hour trip straight up the mountain. It was an extraordinarily difficult climb for the horses, and for me, who hadn't ridden a horse in 30 years, and who had a WOODEN saddle, well, it was a sore-rear-end experience. At one point I got off the horse to walk. Now, I love to walk and climb. I'm certainly not in good shape, but I can walk. Not this mountain. After 10 minutes I couldn't even breath. So, I got my sore rump back on the horse. The poor horse. There wasn't really a trail. It had to find a place for his/her (I never sexed it) hoof, then move one step, then search among the rocks for the next hoof space. A difficult climb.

Finally we arrive in the village--6 to 8 houses, spread out along the hillsides, clinging in a gravity-defying manner to the mountain side. Lush beautiful vegetation, in sharp contrast to the devastating erosion and deforestation surrounding it on all sides. I was the first foreigner to visit the area in the memory of all the living, and Andre's parents are in their 80s. No one had ever even heard a tale of a visiting "blanc" having been there.

The second evening there were perhaps 8 of us sitting around the lakou --farm yard--in the evening. It was dusk. The evening was to be a full moon, which in the mountains means near daylight all night long. The sun was declining, soft pastel colors bathed the steep hills, a water fall kept up a gentle roar across the valley. Certainly it was one of the most beautiful sights I've ever experienced. It wasn't just "seeing" it. It was the experience. The absolute stillness, no one speaking, people just sitting silently watching the evening advance. The lakou was dirt, but swept so clean you could eat off it. Exciting shadows caused by the falling sun on the endless variety of exotic trees--banana, lemon, grapefruit, orange, coffee, the ever present huge mango trees and then dozens of others whose names I don't know. Each with its own particular shape, casting its own unique shadows. Just a breath-taking experience.

With the memory of THE MISSION in my mind I pulled my recorder and music (I still don't know any songs without the sheet music) from my backpack. I was sitting off by myself, but when I began to play the recorder broke the silence like thunder. It was as though my little instrument was magnified a 1000 times. Well, to say this was the sensation is to grossly understate the event. Andre later told me this was the biggest event that happened in the village in ages. I figured people would know the melodies of the classic Christmas carols which I played- Silent Night; Adestes Fideles; Greensleves; The Coventry Carol; These Three Kings; and others. They had never heard any of them, but no matter. They all came to where I was. People sat on the ground. People came from all over. For the next hour, even as pitch dark blackness came (the moon didn't rise until about 8 P.M, darkness came by 6:30, but the people knew they could return home by clear moonlight). By 8 P.M. the lakou was crowded, nearly as full as the church had been for morning mass.

I was concentrating on the music. I am still a rank beginner, if I'm to play at all I must concentrate. Yet, the sheer romance of this moment, its association with my idealized picture from THE MISSION, was vaguely in the background. I must confess, I was enjoying this moment as much as any in my whole life. And then, as it should have been, the moment was shattered.

A young boy, perhaps 15, was sitting just inches away from me; he had been from the beginning, over 2 hours before. He stared with great intensity and care. Finally, he asked if he could see the instrument. I handed him the recorder with some reluctance. There were more than 60 people there. I didn't relish the idea of my new wooden recorder, my treasured Christmas present from my son Cary, being passed around the whole crowd. But, what could I do? The boy examined the 8 holes, he'd watched with rapt attention, so he knew the fingering of various sounds. He was simple a marvel; he needed no practice, he needed no music. In less the 10 minutes was playing fast Haitian folk tunes, all the music he knew. I was astounded, shamefully disappointed that my moment of glory had passed, terribly jealous of this kid's natural talent. The people knew music when they heard it, and my Christmas music (carefully selected so that only slow pieces were played so as not to exceed my capabilities) was simply not it. Now they were on their feet. They danced. A tanbu appeared. A soft, but frantic beat began to accompany the boy's fifing. Next a man began to beat on a metal pot with some piece of metal, a knife or key or something. The tinny Caribbean beat was now there. A full bambouche was in progress. And, I disappeared into the background. My jealousy and disappointment passed. My sense of who I am returned. My sense of joy and love of this experience re-asserted itself. My admiration of the boy predominated. I realized what I was a part of and I began to realize the gift I was being given. So, I danced, and danced and danced. The people swept me into their midst. Oh good grief I was so clumsy in comparison with their practiced and graceful movements. But I no longer cared. I surrendered myself to the moment, to the mood to, the music, to the people. The dancing was gentle, the emphasis on subtle movement, more hints of movement than movement. This style fits the hot climate, fits the music's emphasis on beat rather than melody. One makes some slight movement on the beat, bobbing and weaving like a snake preparing to strike. Haitian bodies move like a twitching unit. I can't quite get that, but my upper body does ok. From the knees down I'm a bit weak to understate the case. But oh how I danced!

I'm a happy person. But happiness rises and falls, peaks and ebbs. This was certainly one of the happiest moments of my life.


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