Sketchy people at every street corner, fences with barbed wire, gates with guards, and windows with metal bars… gangs down every alley, gunshots and screeching tires… sounds something like Compton, California. If you are from Cali, you probably know as well as I do that its a place that you don’t just wander into or around, that is unless you are part of the gang or are looking to get mugged and shot.
Gangs aren’t a joke in Compton, but they are even less so in Costa Rica. The program we were working with , SiNEM, is specifically aimed at puting instruments into the hands of children throughout Costa Rica so that they would find an extracurricular activity other than gangs or so that they could escape domestic violence at home. We went to 8 schools in all, but one place in particular is the one I described above. This place is called Leon Trece. If you live in Costa Rica, you know not to go here. You know to have nothing of value with you and you know not to make eye contact with the wrong people on the wrong street corners.
So why did we go here? Well when I first heard about this place I wondered that same thing. Why would our leader put us in this risky position just for another day of masterclasses, conducting workshops, and a concert?
The answer is simple. We had been to 7 other schools where music was changing the lives of the students, but in no other place was music changing an entire community. As I finished up with masterclasses with a couple of little boys I had worked with they smiled at me and promised that they would keep working hard at everything I had taught them during that hour. I thought it was incredibly cute and adorable so I smiled back and requested that they keep working hard and show me what they can do in 2 years when I return.
I left the masterclass to get a snack with the rest of the band, but as I walked back to get dressed for the concert, I saw one of the boys already hard at work practicing the piece I had just taught him. I couldn’t help but give him a high five with a huge smile on my face. Just a little encouragement, but it brought tears to his face. Turns out for many of the kids, there is very little support for music coming from the families of these children… that is if they have a family at all. To this boy, one little high five may have been the first time that he was affirmed for his hard work.
But the story goes on. We had a fantastic concert with a full audience in the Cathedral and at the end, the same little boy and another one of my students, Esteban came up to give me a hug and thank me for the concert and teaching. With tears and a weak voice he said in Spanish, “thank you for a fantastic concert. We are not accustomed to these beautiful sounds. Music really is the good life (pura vida). I don’t really know the story of this boy… but I had to say goodbyes quickly and pack up so that we could make it back to the hotel for dinner.
On the bus back, however, Cindi (our conductor) told us a few parting words from the priest of the Cathedral. He said something along the lines of “that was a great concert. We are not used to such beautiful sounds. we live with the sounds of gunshots.” My heart sank. I thought back to the words that Esteban had said to me as we said our goodbyes. Pura vida was the tourism motto of Costa Rica so I thought these were just a typical saluation of sorts, but as I thought back to that conversation I had with Esteban, it occurred to me that music is the good life because it saved him from a life of gang violence and hopelessness. It saved him from a life of gunshots.
I went into Costa Rica shouting “PURA VIDA” with the rest of the band as a meaningless motto, but I left remembering the day that these two works struck me: musica es la pura vida. Lives were changed that day, a community was brought together, and a friendship has been formed across a language barrier through the universal language of music.