BLIND VIOLINIST STRUGGLES TO REBUILD HAITI IN HIS OWN WAY
(Miami Herald) - By Trenton Daniel
Despite losing his pregnant wife and his music school in the Haitian earthquake, a blind Julliard-trained violinist has plans for a performing arts center.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Standing at the edge of a 10-acre stretch of dusty green fields on the outskirts of the Haitian capital, the blind Juilliard-trained violinist could almost hear the music.
Soaring symphonies, beginners' scales, the sounds of hope.
Antoine Romel Joseph, who was pinned for 18 hours under rubble from the January earthquake that upended Haiti, has plans for the land. He wants to build a world-class performing arts center for concerts, lessons and recitals. From the ruins of a country, he hopes to create a thing of beauty -- and a ``second life'' for himself.
``One life ended January 12 and another started,'' he said. ``This one is going to be more interesting and creative.''
Six months after a 7.0-magnitude quake that claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and trapped Joseph, he has begun the slow journey back. He has faced personal and professional devastation: his wife and unborn baby are gone, crushed in the same toppled music school that nearly killed him. And his future as a musician and teacher seemed bleak after the debris pinned his legs and left hand.
But for the concert violinist who stayed calm in the wreckage by replaying Tchaikovsky's violin concerto in his mind, the music has remained.
For months, he lay in a hospital bed and mourned his wife and the baby boy he'll never see, overwhelmed by the international attention his story drew. Fellow musicians pledged to help rebuild the school he started in 1991 to teach music to poor children. Stevie Wonder gave him two keyboards to keep his fingers active. Joseph is trying to write this all down in a ghost-written autobiography.
As he worked toward recovery with doctors in Miami and Port-au-Prince, a flicker of hope became an idea. And then a plan.
Now, Joseph is trying to reopen his school -- the New Victorian Music School -- and, at the same time, raise money to build a center to nurture young Haitian musical talent and lure tourists.
``People here need music, music education,'' Joseph said. ``That's my life dream for Haiti.''
If recovery efforts in Haiti have been painstakingly slow and seemingly invisible, Joseph has showed signs of progress. In March, two months before he turned 51, Joseph checked out of University of Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital and into an altered version of the world. His time is measured in doctor appointments and pills. He's mostly off the painkillers but still on blood pressure medicine. He has removable casts on both legs and uses a cane to get around.
His left hand -- swollen, a pair of metal plates straightening the bones -- still aches too much to play the violin with regularity but his doctor believes he'll be able to resume performances soon.
``If the bones go on to heal as they should, he has the possibility to play at or near his previous level within the next six months,'' said Dr. Patrick Owens, the University of Miami Jackson Memorial hand surgeon who operated on Joseph.
BORN NEARLY BLIND
The son of a tailor, Gilbert, and a seamstress, Carmelite, Joseph was born nearly blind in Gros Morne, a city in northwest Haiti. His father played trumpet and his parents sent him to St. Vincent's School for handicapped children in downtown Port-au-Prince when he was 5.
At 10, a nun introduced him to the violin, and his life changed. With the help of scholarships and a Fulbright grant, Joseph left Haiti in 1978 to study violin performance at the University of Cincinnati and in 1985 at The Juilliard School in New York. He also played at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra before returning in 1987 to Haiti, where he founded the music school.
The divorced father of two -- Victoria, 21, a violinist and violist and University of Miami student, and Bradley, 18, a pianist and student at Miami Dade College -- remarried in October after meeting Myslie Chery, 26, a cosmetologist from Haiti's southwestern coast.
She was seven-months pregnant, on the ground floor of the school and home, when the quake struck. Joseph had just gone up to the third floor to deliver a phone message.
Stuck in the wreckage for 18 hours, he replayed music in his mind, working his way through every concerto that he had ever performed during his renowned career.
Myslie's body wasn't located for three months.
``I get better physically but emotionally, it's very difficult,'' Joseph said, as he looked away.
``Her not being around.''
There are some pieces of music Joseph can no longer bear to hear, such as Mozart's Ave verum corpus, a composition Myslie listened to the night before the quake. She played the music hoping their baby would be a musician.
``I cannot hear that piece,'' Joseph said.
Joseph's story, picked up by CNN and others, struck a note of recognition for Anne McKinley, co-owner of a violin-making business near Los Angeles. She remembered hearing of a Haitian violinist who had studied at Juilliard.
It turned out that 25 years ago, she and her husband Don sold a violin he made -- No. 33 -- to a Juilliard instructor named Margaret Pardee. Pardee taught Joseph at the conservatory and gave him the maple and spruce instrument.
The McKinleys, touched by their connection, offered to make Joseph a new violin to replace his instrument, which had been damaged by water before rescuers found it in the school's debris.
But Joseph wanted to keep the old one. He had last played it 18 minutes before the tremors began.
``People do get to know their instruments over time,'' McKinley said from her home in Altedena. ``Perhaps keeping it would symbolize a hopeful, new beginning for him.''
McKinley enlisted her pastor, traveling to Haiti via Miami, to bring the instrument to California.
McKinley's husband repaired the ribs and a crack, reset the neck, reapplied varnish and rehaired the bow. The instrument is ready, awaiting someone to hand carry it to Miami.
``Here's a man who lost so much and wants to continue to help the children of Haiti and here's something we can do,'' McKinley said. ``It was the obvious step.''
In Haiti, Joseph stays at a Pétionville inn called Le Deux Séjour with Haitian paintings on the walls and black-and-white tiles on the floor. ``It's very family-like, that's why I like it,'' he said.
``There's nothing complicated here.''
For Joseph, complications mean squandered time. Recently, the White House invited him to a ceremony for the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act but he opted to skip it because he can't afford the time or money.
All around him, mounds of rubble and vast camps for the displaced look as though Haiti is stuck at Jan. 12, the day the quake hit. But Joseph seems determined to push toward the future.
Waiting for his driver, he gulps coffee and checks his watch, holding it an inch from the right eye, which still registers some sight. At 8:22 a.m., the driver is late.
Joseph planned to visit the bank and doctor, and also try to get Myslie's death certificate. He must find a FedEx office so his daughter can fax him documents for setting up the nonprofit Friends of Music Education for Haiti.
``I used to say I have time,'' Joseph said. ``If I meet someone and they leave, I know that I may never see them. It's amazing how in a couple of minutes, life can change. The whole world can go crazy.''
Later that week, heading back to Port-au-Prince, east of the tent cities and rubble-clogged streets, Joseph talked of his hopes for the music complex.
``Every year people make their plans to go to Tanglewood,'' Joseph said as a tap-tap, a brightly painted bus, bounced by on a dirt road. ``It would be nice to hear people in Santo Domingo come and say, wow, there's this festival in Haiti.''
The project is still very much in the initial stages. He's assembling a board of directors, laying out a five-year plan, consulting an architect, and collecting donations ($20,000 to date, Joseph said).
He dreams big -- a 1,200-seat concert hall, a conservatory with recital space, and a dormitory to house students. The students would eventually become teachers, spreading music through the provinces.
``This could turn into a center stage for culture,'' Joseph said. ``I don't know why this country can't have a music hall.''
On the car radio, the final seconds of the World Cup game between Denmark and Cameroon are counting down. A Haitian sports commentator points out kicks, passes and a thwarted goal in Creole -- ``problem!'' -- repeating the one word with a velocity and intensity that left Joseph marveling:
Then: ``Pagentanpagen tanpagentanpagentan.''
Joseph threw back his head and laughed as dust continued to float through the rolled-down windows, bus horns blared and the car lurched along the broken streets. For a moment, his laughter overcame it all.
``Life is worth living,'' Joseph said. ``I get depressed a little. And then move on.''