We go to Parc Cadeau refugee camp. It is overflowing with Haitians who were recently expelled from the Dominican Republic. We don’t burst out of the car as usual. We’ve been told that some folks are awfully desperate at this camp. It is surrounded by barbed wire. Our guide/interpreter, Milo, speaks to a gatekeeper. We are quiet, and stay put. After a while, a relief worker appears. We get out and follow him thru the gate.
This was our first audience that is visibly hungry. It is teeming with make shift tents of disrepair…the sides are mostly rags. I’m curious how they’re held together. Would they blow off in the first breeze? I quickly shift my attention because I don’t want to stare at anything too long.
The relief worker leads us to a makeshift hut, where there are some benches. It is the first standing structure I see in this sea of tents. Eventually, we get the kids laughing, but it takes longer then usual. After our show, we gather our props, and then head back to our ride. We huddle a moment, wondering if there was something more we could do. It was notable that our audience was mostly children. How many were orphans? Where were the other folks?
We decide to leave most of our props in the car, and return with just some instruments. Clay brings his ‘charango’ . It is strummed a little like an ukulele. I bring my recorder, Chris brings his drum, and Milo carries the broom. We start walking, and play a catchy ditty that Clay wrote. Then we take it up notch and march in, stomping our feet to the beat. Before long, folks come out and follow us. We have a little parade and with out any prompting, they are soon clapping along.
They move to the beat. I see a woman grab a bottle and a rock. She’s going to strike the bottle. What will happen? She hits it with just the right force to get a ‘clink’ out of it that rings. She hits it to the beat and is now our percussionist.
Clay bellows the wordless melody, over and over again.
“la da dahhhh da da dlahhhhhhh”
“la da dahhhh da da dlahhhhhhh”
“de dash, de day day day”
It’s actually catchier then it looks here.
One at a time, some of the folks sing it with us. People are joining us and the crowd builds. They are smiling more then during our show for the children. We know we want to just keep doing this.
Milo, was carrying the yellow broom we bought in Port au Prince. It was a last second thought….maybe we’d use it to comically sweep each other’s costumes in this dusty environment. Then Chris hands it to a 10-year-old boy. The boy smiled, and held it like a prized scepter. He lifted it up and down to the beat, like a drum major – up down…up down…up down. He wound up in front, leading our parade.
And damn, was he leading!!! We sure didn’t have any idea where to go. With a huge grin on his face, he maneuvered through the maze of tents. And as we paraded , more people gathered and sang along. I heard some wonderful harmonies. A couple of men in their 40’s were next to me, dropping in a terse, “La le Lah” in what is usually a pause in the song. Their voices sounded like a syncopated horn section. We followed the boy with broom thru the trail of tents. I wanted to look more at the faces of the people singing with us, to take in their beautiful expressions, but I was scared I’d trip on a cactus root, fall, and choke on the recorder in my mouth! So, instead I looked at them with my ears. They sounded amazing! They didn’t even know the song, but for a few seconds before we strummed the tune. I promised myself that if I there was again, we’d bother to learn one of their songs!
Next, we followed our broomstick leader to a bit of open space. People of all ages circled around us. Soon, Chris is dancing with a skinny man, maybe in his late 40’s, who wore a bright yellow shirt. He can do most any of Chris’s moves. Then he moves his hands towards Chris in a magical way, as if he’s casting a spell. Everyone is clapping and singing. Clay spots a kid who is too short to see, and hoists her onto his shoulder. No need to play charango now with the crowd singing and dancing. Chris is now drenched in sweat, and eventually dances to me.
“Let’s trade off,” he says.
I’m delighted to dance and soon I’m shaking my hips in my goofy way, to the laughter of the gathered folks. I’m amazed at the energy of the skinny-yellow-shirt man, or rather, the shaman. A few others come in the circle and bust a move. When that naturally ends, we reprise Clay’s song, and by the final chorus, we’re jumping up and down together, on the beat, as one. Although Carnivale season has already passed, for a moment in Parc Cadeau it returned. And as they pushed their incredible challenges aside, and participated so fully, we were inspired. We felt gratified, too. Hopefully, we spread a little joy. We traded notes—it was one of our happiest moments performing….ever.