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A cymbal of love in Jamaica

Author: Arts and Letters

Three years ago Kenneth Dye, director of Notre Dame Bands, sent musical instruments to a crime- and drug-infested ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica, to help occupy the time of children living in poverty and very much in danger of falling prey to gangs.

He took on the project after traveling to the Caribbean island at the request of former Notre Dame provost Nathan Hatch, who asked him to assess how the University might be able to get involved and help the inner-city neighborhood. What he found was a struggling community center trying to operate a marching band with almost nothing for the kids to play, so he knew what he had to do.

Dye wasn’t able to secure any funding to buy instruments, so he switched gears and convinced Yamaha in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Woodwind and Brasswind in South Bend, as well as a group of Notre Dame Band alumni to donate to the project. The two music stores sent him 50 brand new instruments, many of which were of better quality than what Dye’s own students were playing, and the alumni offered about 20 gently used instruments.

It took several months to collect everything and, in the spring of 2005, some 70 instruments were sent to western Kingston’s St. Patrick’s Foundation, which runs community centers and hospitals and seeks to empower people to develop into responsible citizens through education and skills training.

The foundation supported the rag-tag Sea View Gardens Band that Dye had witnessed through Christ the Redeemer Human Resource Center, one of its three area community centers. Its young members were using broken down instruments and pom-pons made from shredded plastic trash bags scavenged from a nearby landfill.

Dye’s offerings doubled and vastly improved the quality of the band’s supplies.

“It’s just heart wrenching,” Dye said. “The public interest is tremendous because it’s the only thing they have to do. When the band practices, the entire neighborhood shows up to watch. It’s incredible. I think if we had enough instruments everyone in the neighborhood would join the band.”

Dye’s next goal is enriching the program. He plans to send three of his assistant directors to Kingston for about a week in May to work with the kids and share their areas of expertise. They will write music on the spot and teach it to the band.

Sam Sanchez, who will accompany his colleagues Matt Merten and Emmett O’Leary, is an expert in marching percussion and writes all the marching formations for the Notre Dame Band. He is excited about making the trip, though not sure what level of musicianship to expect.

“First, I will evaluate them, then try to offer suggestions to help with their areas of weakness,” Sanchez said. “I would imagine it will take some creativity to adapt to their system and work within it, so they can effectively build off of our ideas. The ultimate goal is to help them become a better marching unit.”

For now, his hands are tied due to lack of money, but eventually, Dye would like to find a way to support bands in all three of the foundation’s community centers, rather than just one.

Also, Dye believes this endeavor can potentially improve much more than the kids’ musical talents. He feels it is possible to get them more interested in academics, by using the music as an incentive to learn language and math skills.

“It’s necessary, for example, to be able to count and know fractions to read music,” Dye explained. “I’m in the process of writing a book to help people grasp the concept of music as an academic tool. It will be a compilation of music pieces with dialogue that will apply to students of all ages.”

For Dye and his assistant directors this mission has been fraught with frustrations, but they feel that’s all the more reason to plow forward.

“The Notre Dame Band has a strong desire to always consider service as a vitalcomponent of teaching and learning,” Sanchez said. “We not only want to be strongmusicians, but we want to give back to others, even if the conditionspose some difficulty.”

Originally published by Shannon Chapla at on April 27, 2007.