Violinist brings note of hope in Haiti

Quake survivor plans to build performance hall

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 18, 2010 

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — 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 musical 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.”

Slow recovery

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.

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.

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 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.

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.”

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