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  • Music as MissionHierarchies of Sound and Difference
  • Lauren Eldridge Stewart (bio)

Each morning of summer music camp in Cange, Haiti, a hymn is sung, a prayer is lifted, and morning announcements are given. One hymn, “Jésus te confie,” sticks in my mind long after the last childish voice fades into screaming, laughter, and rehearsal:

Jésus te confie Jesus charges you
Une œuvre d’amour To a work of love
Utile et bénie Useful and blessed
Jusqu’à son retour. Until his return.
Cette sainte tâche This small holy task
Veux-tu l’accomplir Will you do
Pour Lui, sans relâche, For Him, without respite,
Sans jamais faiblir? Never faltering?
Prie, agis, jour après jour, Pray and act, day after day,
Sans broncher sur ton Sauveur avec amour. Without stumble, to your Savior with love.
Sois fidèle, obéissant Be faithful, obedient
Et le maître rendra ton travail puissant. And the Master will make your work powerful.

The hymn is sung a cappella, and most of the children sing from memory.1 They sound as if they are singing phonetically from a hymn book, with each syllable—even the trickier silent ones—matching a different note. The first time or two that I hear it, I think that it is a song in Kreyol created for the camp, and [End Page 79] this is why all the students know it. I later learn that it is, in fact, in French and part of a hymn compilation titled Chants d’espérance. The Haitian staff members form a physical rim around the students, watching carefully to ensure that each child is singing. Foreign volunteers stand off to the side, most rubbing the crust from their eyes at seven in the morning. The repeat volunteers hum along to the chorus. The new volunteers are silent in the presence of this ritual. Some furtively pull out smartphones to capture the sound, oblivious to the charge being set.

The lyrics, however, are telling in their reach and in their prescription of everyday practice. At this Episcopalian camp, everyone involved is to some degree responsive to the charge of music as a “work of love” in which inherent and powerful hierarchies order life. Through the lyrics, the children admonish each other to daily acts of devotion. Through the force of repetition, students and instructors alike prove their fidelity to the genre and what it represents. Though classical music—the work of love that they are engaged in—might seem difficult to understand as useful or practical, the campers’ repeated engagement of it signals the value with which they regard it, and its very endurance serves as evidence of significant cultural importance. Daily communal recitation serves an important function in this context. Each stanza presents a pedagogy of language, of discipline, and of music.

Each summer, nearly one hundred international volunteers descend upon Haiti to teach music during the breaks of their teaching and performing schedules in North America and Europe. Though this activity could be considered a leisurely extracurricular, the volunteers who fundraise to travel the day-long journey to rural Haiti, the students who attend in order to brush up skills that they’ve acquired outside the standard Haitian curriculum, and the Haitian educators for whom this is an additional source of income all take summer music camp very seriously.2 Students come to camp for a variety of reasons, some overlapping: perhaps they really like the cello; maybe their parents encouraged them to go; they may have several friends in attendance. Similarly, their parents hold a range of attitudes toward classical music: some perceive the genre as a means to a financial or disciplinary end; some send their children to camp because the parents attended and have fond memories.

Summer music camp should be contextualized by the influence of contemporary international aid and a history of foreign mission involvement in Haiti. The performance of rigor and devotion experienced during summer music camp are born of an environment of omnipresent surveillance cultivated by decades of UN troops and centuries of Christian missionary intervention, both forms of coloniality. Day in and day out, season after season, these...


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pp. 79-92
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