Spotted in Manila, 2014

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ghetto Classics

In Nairobi's Korogocho slum, where the children use balls of trash to play soccer and plastic bags soar in the sky like vultures, there is a group of teenagers making beautiful music. They are students in Ghetto Classics, a free orchestra program that meets every Sunday offering lessons for the students of the neighborhood. 

I thought I had prepared myself for what I was about to see. I knew that Korogocho is Kenya's fourth largest slum with 200,000 residents within 1.5 square kilometers. However, I could not comprehend the pollution, smell, and traffic I experienced once inside. Pulling into the driveway of the school that hosts Ghetto Classics gave me so much relief, knowing we were about to make music--my own escape from the poverty. 

Our afternoon began with a group game like usual, to get the students moving, singing, and set the tone for the rest of the day. We split into sectionals: Christina with flutes, Ellen with percussion, Nick with brass, and Brian and myself with clarinets and saxophones. Brian and I started our sectional by asking each student to explain why they play with Ghetto Classics (it is an optional program, they can come on Sundays if they want. So we realized how special they were and thanked them for being there). They all said that they couldn't really explain it but without hesitation, every student said "I just love playing music." One of the older students explained that he thinks of music as paying it forward: since he is so grateful for all of his mentors, he teaches all of the primary students everything he knows about music. Another student said that "music is a tool for social change"--a phrase that is so special to Trade Winds, we use it in our mission statement. 

I shouldn't have been surprised at these poetic statements of love for playing music. I knew it was going to be a good day when immediately after meeting the students one of them raised his hand and volunteered his voice saying "I play the saxophone and I will until the day I die."

After combining sections to do an hour of woodwind and brass ensemble rehearsals, we were so lucky to be given a performance by the students. They brought me to tears as they performed both written hymns and improvised African songs with more passion and excitement than most performances I've seen. We followed them with a performance of Ligeti's "6 Bagatelles" and only hoped to bring as much energy to our performance as they brought to theirs. 

To think that they each live on just $1 a day and still give up their Sundays to practice made me so thankful to have the access to my own music. Another student explained to us that he so badly would like to take private lessons, but the professional teachers in Nairobi charge more than he could ever think to pay for lessons: $11 an hour. It put things into perspective for all of us to say the least. The students at Ghetto Classics taught me more than I would ever hope to teach them. 

Near the canal that brings water to Korogocho

The building where Ghetto Classics rehearses

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