CROSSING BORDERS MUSIC
Tom Clowes has been teaching cello and Western-style music in Haitian summer music camps since 2000. Over the years, he witnessed a country nothing like the Haiti he saw in the media – a country rich in art, language, culture, religion, history, storytelling, and music. One of the biggest surprises was discovering a 130-year-old classical music composition tradition virtually unknown to all but a handful of scholars, even among Haitians. Clowes was captivated by it. So, he started putting on concert programs in the US so others could enjoy this largely unknown side of Haitian culture and its touching music. The result was the non-profit organization Crossing Borders Music.
Founded in 2011, Crossing Borders Music has become a leading interpreter of chamber music by composers from Haiti, Colombia, Syria, India, Egypt, and Uganda. It is also a pioneering and critically acclaimed presenter of music by graduates of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education in Iran. The group’s mission is to use music to promote the dignity of people from all cultures. Concerts include not just the music, but background information and audio-visual materials about the culture from which it comes.
For school-aged and adult audiences alike, each concert shows that composers come from all around the world – not just Europe. Each concert is also a chance to share the stories not heard elsewhere – about Bahá’ís risking their lives and safety to study and teach music in Iran, Haitians seeking refuge in the US, Egyptian Sufis praising God through mysticism and music, Ugandans celebrating the Uganda Martyrs who converted to Catholicism with such fervor that they stood up to their vile king and are said to have died for their new faith in peace and joy.
The unusual approach to helping people feel comfortable with and value diversity is working. Nine out of ten adult audience members say they learn things, find pre-conceived notions challenged, want to learn more, and feel more connected to the culture being featured. Comments audience members make can be even more revealing – comments like “I didn’t expect Haitian string quartets to be so… good!” The unusual approach – and the commitment to free, public concerts – also gives the organization an audience profile almost exactly the opposite of more traditional “classical” music organizations: racially diverse young adults, especially women, from all income levels, with a good number of immigrants and refugees.
Crossing Borders Music also provides concert programs for children in Chicago Public Schools. For the school children, each concert provides a chance for students to not only experience a live chamber music concert and learn about fundamental concepts of music, but also to see composers as diverse in race, religion, and country of origin as their own student body.