Cultural exchange is less about the thousands of intervening miles and more about little details, the little moments. One afternoon in Prince George, Ana Paulin, on loan from Salvador’s NEOJIBA program, was having trouble accessing her travel funds with her Brazilian credit card, so we stopped at a bank branch in a shopping mall to ask the clerks for assistance. As we strolled through the open doors towards the tellers behind the low counters, Ana turned to me with a puzzled expression on her face and asked: “This is a bank?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But where is all the security?” she continued, miming a guard carrying a machine gun.
“Welcome to Canada.”
It was a glib statement, and its implication fell short of the truth. Canadians may not have the same level of violent crime prevalent in the rest of the Americas, but the great myth of the nation is that it doesn’t have a poverty problem. The poverty exists; most developed nations apart from the United States have simply found better ways of hiding it. And if there were one neighbourhood in Canada synonymous with deprivation and all its concomitant problems, particularly substance abuse, it would be Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – the home of the St. James Music Academy, and the next stop for the South American contingent.
Following an extremely successful week in Prince George and the fantastic performance with the PGSO, the assignment in Vancouver for Ana, Nestor and Samuel was far less glamorous but more challenging: to integrate and work for a week within a Canadian núcleo in one of the nation’s most troubled communities– teaching, interacting, learning in the most culturally and pedagogically immersive of fashions.
For this, the staff, faculty and students of SJMA proved to be exceptional hosts, welcoming them with extraordinary open-mindedness, but then again, SJMA is an extraordinary program. I see many el Sistema-inspired programs, but I see few organizations with such pervasive internal culture of dedication to both service and inquiry. I credit this in large part to the Executive Director, Kathryn Walker, long-time resident of the community who simply leads by example at all times. I doubt she’s even aware of her influence, nor conscious of the way she consistently models her values, but her attitude towards the children, and her constant effort to serve them in the best possible way seems to have permeated every single one of the SJMA faculty and staff to the point where the (extremely talented) staff media guru, not possessed of any prior musical training, can be found in orchestra with a flute in his hand sitting next to a child half his age but double his playing experience.
The story of the week in Vancouver makes for a relatively undramatic narrative, unpunctuated as it was by brilliant public orchestral performances before audiences measured in the multiple hundreds, but mass approbation is not the yardstick of impact or import. I knew the week had been a tremendous success in its own way when Chris Loh, the media guru, asked each of the South Americans what a highlight of the time in Canada had been. Without fail, each mentioned the first night in Vancouver. The post-concert celebrations in Prince George had only ceased around 4am that day, and we had reconvened barely six hours later for a very bumpy flight to Vancouver, so we were collectively worn out even before we arrived. And yet we were part of something extraordinarily special that evening.
If words were sufficient we would have no need of music, so the description of the night, in the banality of prose, cannot capture its magic. The living room was warm and energized, crowded with Kathryn’s large family, the South Americans, friends and program participants. And in that most informal and human of spaces (a living room), music was made. Some sang, others in turn played instruments (there were three numbers on accordion), others simply watched, immersed in the moment. After the hierarchy implicit in the stage and the concert hall the night before, this was a profoundly important reminder that music is something to be shared, that it is (RIP Christopher Small) inherently a social activity, that it is not a commodity to be monetized, but that it is the true fabric of cultural exchange, the very ether of relationships,
And as such it is, especially in its humblest of forms, incredibly beautiful. Jamie and Hannah, your two original duets were simply some of the sweetest, most lovely things I’ve ever heard, and I regret that my most prosaic of souls could not express that in any more meaningful way that evening. Brad, the SJMA visual arts teacher and yoga master and a man of far more poetic nature, described your songs as having left him tingling and aglow. I can’t remember the lyrics or the melodies of the music you offered, but I will never forget how it made me feel. And for your visitors from South America or for an ex-pat living on the other side of the continent, that, along with all the other beautiful offerings of the evening, is far more lasting and valued a gift than any souvenir. It was a little detail, it was a little moment – is that the stock-in-trade of musicians?