Photos: Wilhelm Kvist
I had many different plans for my working period in Villa Karo. But already before my arrival to Benin my main project kind of chose itself and so I concentrated for most of the time on the school project I wanted and had planned to do. Partly this project chose itself because it demanded quite a lot of planning in advance. This is what I wrote about it before my departure: I have been working with children in Finland as a part of Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s school projects since 2006. The project is called Hei me sävelletään! – Let’s Compose! The idea of this form of work is to compose a musical story with children from some specific theme and perform it. This work form has been very meaningful to me as a musician. Working with a musical composition is an art form which puts children in a very equal position. Moreover, it affects positively on children’s performance skills, thinking and group skills.
My aim in Benin is to do an education project similar to the ones we do in Lahti, Finland. The idea of this project is to compose a piece of music with the children from their own starting points, using any instruments available, singing and body sounds. Children don’t need to know how to play any instruments before they take part of this project. Working with musical compositions gives a possibility to speak about musical structures, performing skills and share cultural awareness. My theme for the project in Benin will be Winter. I am looking forward to hear what ideas and stories this will raise among children in Benin and what kind of sounds we will use to describe it in a musical form. At the end of the project the new composition will be performed. Moreover, I will play for the children Antonio Vivaldi’s Winter from Four seasons.
This project will be connected to a project happening at the same time in Lahti (Finland), which is Finland’s Unicef city in 2014. This connection starts so that the kids in Finland will send some little greetings that they have made to the kids in Benin with me. Projects in Benin and in Finland can be followed through a Facebook blog. If possible, I will send some material (pictures, sound and text) for the education project’s concert in Lahti on 8 April, so that it can be showed to the concert audience. Having returned to Finland, I will meet Finnish children that attended the project in Lahti and pass on the greetings from the Beninese children.
Looking back and reading this text, I feel happy about how everything turned out in general with the school project. What was not mentioned in the text above (but which was an important part of the whole) was that I also asked for donations from my colleagues and friends so that we could buy some instruments for the school in Grand-Popo. I was able to collect altogether 400€, for which I feel very thankful to my colleagues. So before my travel to Benin I was able to collaborate fruitfully with my work place Lahti Symphony Orchestra and my colleagues there (to build up the Facebook event page, to collect the money for the instruments to buy in Benin, to arrange all the little details about how my project in Benin would be connected to Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s school project etc.), I hooked up with one school class in Karisto School in Lahti (students from which sent drawings as a greeting to students in Benin) and I spoke about the project with some Finnish instrument shops (Soitin Laine and Keskusmusiikki, who sent some instrument equipment with me to Benin). I was very happy to notice that people in Finland were very supportive and willing to help me with the project and even more willing to help to collect something for the children in Benin. I want to remember this, because so often we Finnish are judged to be a little cold, here I felt the opposite; people were really friendly and willing to help.
In Benin, I was really gladly surprised about how well we were able to organise everything concerning the donation. We bought a nice set of instruments for the school, some essay books and other little writing equipment and with the money that was still left, we served the children food on the concert day and still arranged so that local musician Gustave Amour would give some percussion lessons to the children after my stay in the country. Villa Karo’s Managing Director Kwassi Akpladokou organised everything that concerned this with elegance and ease and that really meant a lot to me and the whole project. It made me feel good when I knew that I was able to tell my colleagues how well their money was spent.
The project itself was very demanding. I knew it beforehand, but still as expected there was no way to know how things would go. The fact that the school teachers in Benin had been on strike since January affected of course the work and the situation. Before I started my project, I had no idea that there was any strike going on. When I went to the school for the first time to arrange the timetable for the project, I met with the head master and one teacher. After that, whenever I went to the school, it felt somewhat strange that when I was conducting my project, there were basically no other adults around, nobody was checking which children should be in my group and which shouldn’t. A couple of times one other teacher came to follow the project for a little while, but basically I was on my own at school. It was very good that I asked a local percussionist, Gustave Amour, to join me in the project, because without any local adult the situation would have been very difficult indeed. Many times, the situation was chaotic; before the lesson instruments were locked somewhere (nobody knew where), no teachers were available anywhere, children who were supposed to be in my group were somewhere cleaning some other building and instead I had around me 20-30 children who wanted to be in my group and behaving even violently when they couldn’t get in. All this was confusing and made me think if my work was at all welcome at school. Also, I was thinking about how something could go so badly wrong, when I just wanted to do something good and my intentions were good. I was thinking by myself that maybe some of the children will only remember that there was a white woman playing the violin and that they were not allowed to get in.
This was so far from my wishes and intentions that I had to do some serious thinking. I realised that good intentions, good work and good trying does not guarantee a good result. Also, I realised clearly that since nobody had asked for my help, I had no reason to expect any gratitude and I honestly think I didn’t expect that. I was more hoping for a mutual interest to work together and see what can be born from this collaboration. With children I was able to feel this. Maybe overall I would just have felt easier and more welcomed if there had not been a school strike going on.
Moreover, it was maybe a bit too demanding to try to do the project in French. Maybe I would have achieved more with the children had I only had a little bit more time. But even now everything went well. We got the instruments, we worked with the children, we played the concert in Villa Karo, we made some drawings with the children to send as greetings to the Finnish children, we made music together and in the end the children received their diplomas of the project. I was also able to send some video material to Finland which was screened at the children’s concert in Lahti and received with big interest. The Facebook event was followed by many people and in so many ways everything went in an almost perfect manner.
With the children we spoke little about the winter, which was our theme for the piece. I had brought with me some magazines with a lot of winter pictures. I taught to the children one Finnish folk song and they taught me one Beninese song. These songs we used in our composition. We made a story where a Beninese fisherman is suddenly in the middle of the Finnish winter. He is desperate, because he can’t fish in the middle of ice, snow and coldness. Luckily, he meets the Finnish Santa Claus who helps him. They sing a Finnish song together whereafter the fisherman feels so much more energetic that he is able to break the ice and fish. He manages to catch a huge fish and then he makes a big fire. He invites his friends to a big party and he is happy since it is finally warm. For this story we made up sounds from the instruments. The ending of the piece was the Beninese folk song. The children were dancing, singing and playing.
It all went well, but I was still lacking some deeper connection with the children. My idea of this kind of educational work is that the children should feel free to express their ideas and try out different instruments without any worries about what is right or wrong way to do musically. In Benin, I think I didn’t achieve this as well as I wanted. I knew too little (almost nothing) about the educational culture in Benin and I couldn’t get through my ideas in such a short time and with my limited language skills. That is why I made use of some easier solutions, just to get our composition ready on time.
On a deeper level it was all very interesting. I realised that our musical and educational cultures are very far away, this is of course nothing new, but the way they are different and how these differences appear surprised me. In Beninese music, rhythm is everything (this was neither new information). The rhythm is very complicated, but what surprised me is that, at least from my point of view, rhythm is to a large extent controlled, too, so that at least on a basic level there is not so much room for improvisation. Things should be played correctly. The experience with this project gave me the impression that maybe in a school in general there is no freedom to imagine, but instead it is strongly a place for learning, repeating and memorizing. In this context, it would have taken more time for me to create that kind of mental space for the children where they can imagine any sound they want and try to do it and that nothing in that sense would be wrong. Also, I have to remind me, that no matter how much I demand from myself it was also a new situation for the children. In fact they did great work. With a stranger (me) with them and they performed so well! I also must say that I met many really talented children and I feel privileged about this experience.
In general, many conversations with other Finnish artists in Villa Karo and with some local people, as well as reading through some older numbers of Akpé-magazines, made me think what kind of work form then would be recommended for artists who come to Villa Karo. Since the work I tried to do felt so difficult, was that to tell that it was wrong? Originally I was much inspired by the Huomenta Afrikka book, in which I read about the local school teacher Larissa Methonou who wished that Villa Karo’s work could also help somehow concretely local people. Her words inspired me for the fund raising and I thought that it would be an interesting experience to compare work with children in Finland and in Benin. In Finland my motivation to do the school projects is that I believe that it is a great gift for the kids that we are free to make music together. In Finland music is not as present in everyday life as in Benin. This is also one huge difference; in Finland music is played and learned in institutions, in Benin people sing and play while fishing and doing their everyday jobs. I was faced with artists who think that we should just be more selfish with our art and forget this kind of charity work when we come to Villa Karo. On some level, I understand this thinking and it made me look at my project even more critically.
In the end, I thought that despite of all the difficulties I had to face while doing my project it was all worth it. The difficulties were the things that taught me most and I was really very concretely confronted with cultural differences. If I would have only worked with my violin (which I did by the way surprisingly much) or only be writing and studying for my next book and playing with professionals I think my experience wouldn’t have been so deep. When so many Villa Karo artists were writing or speaking about “the search for the real and original” Africa, I really was contented just with the experiences I had. It was real what I felt, real differences, but also real similarities. I was happy to meet “my children” in Grand-Popo. I was happy every time, and it was quite often, that any one of them came “just to say hi” to me on the street and I was happy that many of them came to listen my concert on the final evening.
In fact I am late with my writing, I have been back in Finland already for some time now, but in a way my project was still unfinished. Tuesday 13th of May I went to visit one school class here in Lahti in Karisto School and I spent one lesson with these 10-year-old children speaking about my experiences in Africa. They had also participated to this school project in Lahti and we changed experiences. They had sent their drawings with me to Benin and now I came back with the drawings we made with the Beninese children. The pictures from Benin were a great success! At the same time there were many other subjects that we discussed. We spoke about Benin, about its nature, how it is hot there, about the school life in Benin, about the birth certificates and passports and possibilities to travel. We also spoke about religions, different habits and the children’s rights. And then we spoke some words about the cruel history of the slave trade.
The children had many comments and questions, but they listened especially intensively when I told them the story of my friend and colleague from Benin. Percussionist Gustave Amour told me what he experienced when he was told about the slave trade for the first time at school when he was a child. He said that he remembers how he came home that day so upset that he thought that he would not ever want to meet any white people in his life. How was it possible that the white people had been selling his grand-grand-grand-fathers? Then Amour continued that when he thought about it more after a while he thought that actually what had happened in history was not the fault of the white people living nowadays. And then he also thought that some blame for this terrible history was also in his own people who were in charge and who had allowed the slave business to go on. And so he then made peace with the whites in his mind. I thought this was a very good story to tell to Finnish children living now, because it is so easy to imagine how one would feel as a child about hearing for the first time about such a cruel history concerning your ancestors. After I had told this one girl raised her hand and said: “but how can any king or anyone for that matter ever imagine for a moment that any money or any diamonds in the world would be enough to buy a person? Because isn’t it so that every person in the world is so valuable that there is not any amount of money that would be enough to buy him/her.” What else was there left to say to the children? I just said that I wish everybody would think like that.
"I don’t know what is the “right” way for an artist to travel to Villa Karo, what are the “right” work forms and “right” results. But I am happy that I experienced what I experienced and I am convinced that these experiences will affect my work and myself."
Besides the school project I also had time for different experiences. I played with local musicians, improvised more than ever in my life, practiced with big inspiration my own classical repertoire, gave one violin lesson, met the people at the African Art Center and played with them a highly inspirational session, traveled, played some music for a Togolese danseur Estelle Foli and Finnish choreographer Ervi Sirén, had many interesting meetings and conversations and I thought a lot. After the trip, it has been somewhat difficult to settle at home. Something had changed, it is hard to put a finger on it, but it was a big experience. I am happy that I have already had many contacts with my friends from Benin since I left for Finland. And I hope it will stay like that.
I want to thank everybody in Villa Karo to make us feel so much at home!