In 2006 a young performance group called EagleSong, directed by Emmy winner Gary Fray, decided to do a different kind of performance tour. Armed with energy and a desire to serve, the group went to hurricane ravaged New Orleans to bring the gift of music to people desperately in need of a little joy. The following is an excerpt from the journal he kept during the trip, and we at FAF believe it exemplifies what we’re all about. Read, and be inspired.
Saturday April 8th, 2006
Yesterday was one of the most memorable days in the long history of EagleSong. We got a much closer look at the legacy of Katrina as we rode into downtown New Orleans. It was nearly unbelievable to see hundreds upon hundreds of damaged, abandoned cars that had been towed into ‘auto graveyards’ amid the columns supporting the raised freeway. When we arrived at the address we had been given for our 11 a.m. show, we found ourselves before a warehouse-style building that had obviously been inundated by the floodwaters of Katrina, and saw no one around. Could this be the place we were supposed to perform?
After walking around to the back of the building, we found garden plots being tended by volunteers for an organization called Common Ground. In addition to providing small gardens for the poor to grow their own food, they also have become a volunteer registration center for those trying to help rebuild New Orleans in any way they can. They had set up chairs in front of the loading dock, which became the makeshift stage for our concert. At least a hundred volunteers took a break from their labors to enjoy our songs, and yet again there were smiles and tears of appreciation in evidence everywhere. When I mentioned to one volunteer that we wished that we had so much more to give them, she said, “You do what we can’t do. You know, it’s so hard to make yourself smile. But we stand here in a pile of debris, and then your kids sing to us and we smile, and somehow then the debris looks a lot better.
We had enough time before our next performance to stop en route in the French Quarter (the least damaged of the areas of New Orleans) for a quick shopping spree to pick up some souvenirs from the open-air flea market. It was heartening to see how busy the city was; one would think all was normal from appearances there. As our bus continued on, it didn’t take long for those thoughts to be wiped out. We started to pass areas absolutely devastated by the storm: house after house with spray-painted symbols on the front, placed there by National Guard units who had to go door-to-door and inspect every room of every house, noting where deceased individuals or pets were found. It was a ghastly reminder of the terrible human toll of Katrina.
After a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the Baton Rouge area, we arrived at Baker, Louisiana. One of the most unforgettable sights of the entire trip was turning the corner into Renaissance Park to see thousands of FEMA trailers, acres and acres of them in row upon row. It was a chilling sight, akin to seeing Arlington National Cemetery. At the perimeter the National Guard security detail pointed our bus toward a central area with a tent (where until just a week ago free hot meals had been served). There we met a worker from the Red Cross helping run this trailer community who warned us not to expect anyone to come to hear our concert. “Please don’t think it’s anything against you kids,” she said. “We’ve tried and tried to do things to draw people together, to get them out of the trailers and mingling with each other, but nothing has worked. Everyone is just too despondent and hurting too much right now.”
Though some wondered if we should even bother to perform, I knew that Friendship Ambassadors was hoping to help establish regular musical entertainment here. So I told the kids that even if no one showed up for our entire show, we were going to do a full set-up, crank the speaker volumes as high as they would go, and send our music out to anyone within earshot. “We have to plant the seed, we have to pave the way,” I said. “Even if no one comes today, maybe the next time they hear music starting here they’ll decide to come. But only if this is the most exciting show we can make it!” So set up and sing we did, and the kids in EagleSong poured their hearts into “We’re All in This Together,” our opening number. The tent area was empty save our chaperones and bus driver.
Undaunted, we launched into “Let’s Jam.” And slowly, gradually, some children who we had seen playing started to come over to check out the music. Soon an older black couple came in and sat down, and by the time we sang “Lean On Me,” a few families were in the folding chairs. Carol noticed a 13-year-old African-American boy towards the back quietly singing along, and she approached him and asked if he knew the song, and he told her he loved to sing. Carol ran up to me at the sound mixing board to let me know and suggest maybe he could sing with us. By that time we had started the song “I Believe I Can Fly,” and it turned out that the young man, named Joel, knew this one even better. When I finished, I announced we were going to perform it one more time, this time with a guest soloist. The kids welcomed him warmly, and when he started to sing you could feel a magical change happen. He had a terrific voice, and as he sang the opening lines, “I used to think that I could not go on, that life was nothin’ but an awful song; there are miracles in life I must achieve, but first I know it starts inside of me,” I know there was no more powerful music on the entire planet at that moment.
We finished the song and erupted in cheers for this incredible young man, and the whole atmosphere had changed to one of joy and fun and sharing music. We sang “Lean on Me” again with Joel, and others started to come up to sing, too. Joel sang “Amazing Grace” as we provided some impromptu backgrounds, and when he faltered on the words, our bus driver’s voice rang out from the back of the tent, and soon he was up in front singing with us as well. We sang every song we could think of that we might know together. Joel and his cousins tried to do some of our choreography and led us in some dance steps of his own, our students gave the younger kids piggy-back rides, and the whole scene was a little chaotic in the best possible way: unbridled happiness and music. When we finally had to go, there were cheers and tears, hugs and exchanges of phone numbers, and the unmistakable feeling that everyone had made some new friends. The older couple that had been among the first to come thanked me, saying “If we’d only known how good this was going to be, we’d have tried to get lots more people to come!” What a fantastic testament to the kids and the power of music to bring people together!
Ask any EagleSong member what their favorite performance of the trip was, and they won’t have to think about their answer. It was the performance in the FEMA trailer park that we almost didn’t do.
As I told the EagleSong kids, any one of the performances we did here would have been worth every second of time and effort we put into it. It has always been EagleSong’s mission to bring joy to our audiences with our music, and that mission has never been so vitally important nor so vibrantly accomplished as on this tour. And I’ve never been prouder of the wonderful young people whose spirit and energy made that happen.