MAY 23, 2010

Playing for change

Jamaica: The Gleaner

by LeVaughn Flynn, Entertainment Editor


A stone's throw away from the haven of alleged drug and gun mastermind Christopher 'Dudus' Coke is St Andrew Technical High School (STATHS), itself a refuge for more than 70 inner-city children. Here, they are removed, if only temporarily, from the bedlam that surrounds them. Here, they enter a new world where the sound of violins expands the imagination and they learn about unfamiliar instruments such as the oboe and the bassoon.

Since January 11, the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica (NYOJ) has held classes at STATHS on Spanish Town Road in Kingston. Children between 10 and 18 years old fill the school's auditorium daily, as their fledgling musical knowledge burgeons past the boundaries of reggae and dancehall; their assimilation interrupted only by the sporadic violence to which the communities that surround the school are prone.

Last week, after prime minister Bruce Golding approved the signing of an extradition request for Coke, residents of Tivoli Gardens, the garrison community in which he is known as 'Presi', formed blockades at the various entrances. This followed widespread panic as people evacuated downtown as they feared the worst. NYOJ classes were suspended as a result.

"Parents were fearful of sending their children out," said Dr Nigel Clarke, chairman of the NYOJ board. "It's a fact that when there is an upsurge in violence in the area we are affected."

Last week's disturbance is not new to the teachers and students of the NYOJ. In February, during the prison riot at Horizon Remand Centre, which is next to STATHS, classes were also suspended. There are also numerous instances of violent flare-ups in the neighbouring communities which render the students hostages to their own homes.

When it isn't violence preventing them from reaching classes, it's the inability to find $20 for bus fare.

"Some of the students can only make it when the circumstances allow," said Sonia Wilson, an administrative coordinator at NYOJ who most times provides bus fare for the children to go home after classes.

"When they're leaving classes at five o' clock, even if they're going three bus stops away, we still try and give bus fare because they're exhausted."

Beyond the obstacles, though, are wide-eyed, enthused students who lap up the free music lessons. There is eight-year-old Daville, for example, who Wilson said has learnt to play the violin so quickly, he helps the teacher with the other students; and 14-year-old Danae Richards whom she describes as serious about the classes "but still has fun with her friends".


The initial planning of establishing the NYOJ began early last year. It had its launch last October, began classes in January and had its first concert on March 28, with the second scheduled for June 20 at STATHS. The orchestra comprises students of STATHS, St Andrew Primary, Denham Town Primary, Greenwich Primary, Denham Town High School and Tivoli Gardens High School, most of whom live in the surrounding communities.

The NYOJ is modelled off El Sistema, a Venezuelan orchestra programme which has been transforming the lives of marginalised youths for more than 30 years. Classes are held Monday to Friday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. The students train in groups based on the instrument in which they specialise but combine for choir practice on Wednesdays and orchestra rehearsals on Fridays.

"We have some of the best teachers in the island," added Ann McNamee, the NYOJ's music director who is head of the keyboard and string department at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

McNamee said the impact of the programme has been so resounding that in two months children who never knew what an orchestra was before were reading music notes in their first live performance.

"Everyone was surprised and the children's eyes lit up when they saw they were understanding it," said McNamee. "It's really empowering to them when they understand those little dots and lines."

That, more than anything, is why the NYOJ was established. By setting up in the belly of some of Jamaica's most challenged communities and providing opportunities for the children there, the NYOJ sees itself as a body to enforce meaningful change.

"It's (programme) not really about music; it's about crime prevention and social intervention," said McNamee. "We're definitely gonna get some musicians out of this, but that was not the goal."


At its genesis, the NYOJ partnered with the Organisation of American States (OAS), which works with similar programmes throughout the Caribbean. The OAS provided a blueprint to guide the NYOJ and funding for instruments and teachers' salaries. Financing from the Digicel Foundation also helped the NYOJ find its footing. Last month, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the embassy of Spain. It includes financial support but, more important, opportunities such as scholarships and additional exposure. The NYOJ also has as its patron music mogul Chris Blackwell whose influence should augur well for the orchestra.

With classes scheduled to restart on Tuesday, McNamee said she'll approach the week cautiously. Usually, when classes are interrupted, there is an evident fall-off in attendance on resumption. The societal ills that affect the NYOJ are the same ones it tries to address. Through classical music, the programme hopes to make an impression on the youths with whom it works directly and, by extension, the disenfranchised communities the students live in. McNamee said teachers at Denham Town Primary, in particular, have noticed a positive change in behaviour of the students who are in the programme.


"The programme we have has the ability to transform communities," declared Clarke. "The determination, discipline and perseverance that the programme requires build character. Playing in an orchestra requires focusing on individual excellence towards achieving a collective goal and the children are really appreciative of the opportunity.

"When we host these concerts in the community and the grandmas and aunties and cousins come out, it really helps develop a bond."

Clarke said the goal is to make the NYOJ as far-reaching and successful as Venezuela's El Sistema. However, more funding is needed to hire additional teachers and buy more instruments so the programme can branch out islandwide.

With an increase in violence in schools and a nation that seems to be losing its moral sensibilities daily, Clarke figures the programme is one way to strike the right chord in an out-of-tune society.

"Sometimes when children give problem it's a need they have. When they realise people are investing time in them, they respond and you can see the result," he said. "That child can link effort with result and change the perception of himself."

National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica empowering lives one at a time

Rafik Williams conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica during their concert held on March 28 at St Andrew Technical High School. - Contributed


Haiti Relief Efforts:
Rebuilding Sainte Trinité

The Youth Orchestra Program in Haiti experienced a major setback when the Program’s host school, the Ecole de Musique Sainte Trinité, was destroyed during the 2010 earthquake. 

Since the OASIS program started, Sainte Trinité served as a venue for the disadvantaged youths of Bel-Air. If we put our efforts together we can bring back the program and help rebuild the school.

› Click here to see what we are doing and to get involved.