How a special volunteer might be shaping the next Haitian music superstar

Professor Dennis Tini once ran a university's prestigious music department. His talents are now influencing a new generation in Haiti.
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

October 13, 2021

One morning at the orphanage, I heard a knock outside the kitchen door. I opened it to see a semi-circle of children burst into song — “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” — while a man in cargo shorts and a t-shirt played the accordion and guided them along.

This was not just any accordion player. His name is Dennis Tini. He once ran the entire prestigious music department at Wayne State University. He’s played with jazz groups all over the world. You can buy his CD’s.

But here he was, in Haiti, on the landing outside our kitchen, playing the simple chords of a Christmas carol and singing along with the kids.

One of many things that will astonish you on the journey to running in orphanage is how many people are willing to come along. From our very first trip to Haiti, when I wrangled two of my closest friends to accompany me, to our current status with four full-time American volunteers teaching in our school and a steady stream of monthly visitors, from photographers to doctors to soccer moms, there has never been a shortage of people willing to help out.

I will write about some of them as the weeks go on. They are worthy of attention and often quite fascinating.

But today, I begin with Dennis, because, at 73, his story is unique.

A beloved professor – in Michigan and Haiti

First of all, Dennis Tini is a world class jazz piano player who has shared the stage with legends like Buddy Rich and Jon Faddis. For years he taught at Wayne State University, co-founded its jazz studies program, ran the choral union, and became head of the entire music department.

When he retired a few years ago, his plan was to travel and perform, do some composing, and grace the stages of clubs and amphitheaters around the globe, where his talent was always welcome.

One night, my wife Janine and I called him up to say hi. We got to talking about the orphanage, our kids, how deeply they loved music. Eventually I tried to nudge him, blurting out, “You should come with us sometime.” When he didn’t say no, I nudged him some more.

Pretty soon, he was on an airplane sitting next to us. I didn’t ask what convinced him. But I knew once he arrived, the kids would take him over, they’d mob him and tug at him and ask if he could “teach me to play, too!”

And that is exactly what happened. We introduced him to the kids and explained that he was a great artist who had come all this way to help them learn music. When we asked who wanted lessons, every hand shot up.

Soon Dennis was working from sunrise to dinner time, teaching kids piano, accordion, guitar, bass, drums, vocals, harmony, notation. He began to come with us almost every trip down, always toting a new instrument in his luggage. One time it was a violin. Another it was a bass amp. He got his friends in the business to donate everything from flutes to microphone cords. I joked that he was bringing us an entire music store one instrument at a time.

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Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti

A musical (and martial) artist

It’s now been several years that Dennis has been coming. During that time, our kids have learned to sing in Italian, French and Hebrew, to perform in harmony and in rounds, to play everything from reggae to gospel, and to sing everything from “Ob-la-di Ob-La-da” to “Buffalo Soldiers.” Dennis has also become a de facto head of security — he has studied martial arts for years and is compact, strong and fearless.

“You see that fork?” he told me once when we were worried about violence in the streets. “That fork is a weapon. That broom is a weapon. You just have to know how to use them.”

And he does.

Dennis teaches in a classroom, in the gazebo, on the balcony, and occasionally as a strolling troubadour. It is not uncommon to see him with an accordion slung over his shoulder, playing pied piper to a line of children shaking tambourines or clacking sticks behind him.

Our kids have formed various bands and on occasion, as detailed in an earlier post, they perform “concerts” on the steps of our school. Dennis and I play with them for support, Dennis on one keyboard, me on another, directly across from him.

Sometimes as we play, I look over at him, his fit, trim frame, closely cropped hair, light mustache, eyeglasses focused on the keys, and I wonder what the heck he is doing here, with us, in this tiny corner of the universe, playing “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” or “Sing a Song” from Sesame Street and not getting a penny for his labor.

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Dennis Tini, Appoloste, and Mitch // Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti

The answer lies is in the way his eyes spring open when a child sings a beautiful note, the way he gushes “Yes, now you’re doing it!” when a drummer clicks on a beat, the way he urges “Do-Fa-La!” or “One AND two AND…” The way he says “I just love these kids.” The way he shows it.

Remember when Lebron James famously said “I’m taking my talents to South Beach”? Well, Dennis Tini has taken his talents to a banana yellow orphanage on a potholed street in a hot crowded city in one of the poorest countries in the world. I don’t know why he keeps doing it. But he could not be more welcome. I look forward to the knock on the door this Christmastime, and the joyful noise that awaits when I open it.

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If you missed the live chat last week about some of the issues our kids face, you can watch it here.

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