The holiday break means a lot of things at the orphanage. In the last few years, it’s also meant a concert. A big one. I’ve written about how our kids have formed various music bands to work on songs they love and practice the instruments they’re learning. And how they can’t wait to get “on stage” — meaning the front porch of our three-room schoolhouse — and perform for the rest of the orphanage.
We did our first of these concerts a couple years ago. A simple, three song endeavor.
Now we do Woodstock.
OK. Maybe that’s pushing it. But I did write a novel a few years ago called “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” and in researching Woodstock for that book, I learned that backstage at that famous music festival was a one massively confused, train-station cluster of musicians, equipment, cords, wires, roadies, fans, friends, and major hallucinogens.
Our concert has all that, minus the drugs.
We had our headliners, the Hermanos Brothers, our oldest band, all teenaged boys, who were set to close the show with a four-song set.
The Hermanos Brothers // Photo credit: Danielle Cutillo
We had our delightful teenaged girls’ band, Destiny 7, who were working on two Christmas numbers.
Destiny 7 // Photo credit: Danielle Cutillo
We had our precocious younger ensemble “Tet Chajey” (Creole for “troublemakers”) who were up for anything.
“Tet Chajey” // Photo credit: Danielle Cutillo
And we had a new group, The Future Stars, made up of young promising talents, who were preparing the classic — and how can you do a holiday concert without this one? — “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”
Tickets were free.
A messy backline
Preparing for this big show, which takes place on a Saturday morning, is a mini comedy in itself. The day of the performance, an all-hands-on-deck call goes out, and everyone from 20-year-old Kiki to 4-year-old Jerry descends on the music room to move every microphone, keyboard, guitar, amplifier, drum, cymbal, tambourine and wood block outside. Of course, they do this one piece at a time, bumping into each other and tangling each other in cords and wires.
Eventually we set up our “stage,” which, given the need for power on an otherwise empty concrete slab, involves running one extension cord after another through the school windows and into classroom plugs. By the time we are finished, the school looks like it is regurgitating orange cords onto the patio.
Oh. Wait. Forgot the chairs. We need to bring them from the kitchen, the living room, the balcony, and anywhere else we can find them. They get set up in the gravel and dirt that fronts the school. Ta-da! We have our venue. It’s not quite Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969.
But hey, we ARE outside.
Now comes the introductions. I handle those, mostly because they are more instructions than introductions (“OK, Future Stars, you come up now. Yes. Uh-uh….Come on…Yes….Now…No, not you little guys! The other…Wait!…”)
The concert begins. The first performance is charming. The Future Stars sing the Hippopotamus song. But more impressively, they feature Babu on the keyboards, Danois on the bass, Louvens on the guitar, Nickenson on the drums, John Carey on the accordion (the accordion?) and Mark on the violin. All of them are under 15 years old.
I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
I don’t want a doll, no dinky Tinkertoy
I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy…
Big applause. Relieved smiles. A quick bow.
But still joy to the world
The teenaged girls in Destiny 7, clad in their pink band t-shirts, start with a cover of the Darlene Love classic “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” During rehearsals we spent time doing a little choreography on this song, where they extend their arms Supremes-style with each line. It looked great in practice, but when they start on stage, it lasts just one move. Teenaged embarrassment takes over. And no amount of me waving my arms from the back is going to change that.
They finish with a cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas,” which they wanted to perform alongside some of our youngest girls, aged 5-9, who joined in only on the chorus. Still, hearing those sweet high-pitched voices singing the lyrics “War is over” sent a warm surge through my bones. It’s a beautiful song anyhow, but when children sing it, it becomes a wish.
I thought about what some of those singers had already endured in their young lives; abandonment, hunger, dirt-level poverty. There is technically no war in Haiti. Yet every day is a battle. War is over. If only.
But back to the show. My favorite highlight came during the teenaged boys set, their final number, a rendition of the old Three Dog Night classic, “Joy to the World.” It featured the first ever lead vocal performance by Widley Montrevil.
Despite a name that sound like it comes with a French castle, Widley has had to endure more than most of our kids. He arrived as a five-year-old with a severe skin condition that lefts bumps and white marks all over his legs and arms. Every night he needed special medication spread over his body. Then he had to wear long sleeves and pants to keep himself covered. This went on for years. Poor Widley, on 100 degree days, always wrapped up from the neck down.
He needed glasses young, and the combination of his skin issues and his spectacles could easily have weighted him with a “nerd” tag had he been a typical American middle-schooler.
But our kids are kinder than that, and Widley can hold his own. He’s strong willed and extremely intelligent. At 16, he’s already aced the TOEFL test he’ll need to go to college in two years. He reads incessantly. And true to form, musically, he chose to play… the violin.
And there he was, Saturday morning, singing the lead on “Joy to the World”…
“Jeremiah was a bullfrog!
Was a good friend of mine…
And then, moments later, he launched into our first-ever violin solo during a rock song. Yep. You read that right. He pulled it off flawlessly, and I couldn’t help but scream a guttural “Yeah!” when he did. In Woodstock terms it was like Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem.
The “Tet Chajey” group joined the chorus of this finale as they sang
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me!”
With their final note, the concert was complete. Polite applause met their exit, and the holiday festival was history.
So maybe it’s not Janis, Sly, Jefferson Airplane or Country Joe. But it was beautiful noise and our own mass confusion, and it was a blast. I only hope we put everything back in its box. We have to do this all again before you know it.
Top image: The crowd at the Woodstock music festival, August 1969. (Photo by Ralph Ackerman/Getty Images)