The Music Man Project in the Philippines: music, medicine and 2 inspirational women.
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I imagined my blog from the Philippines to be dominated by how volunteer Paul Cudby and I bravely overcame the odds to reach a distant land. It’s certainly true that the Christmas typhoon, volcano, earthquakes, Coronavirus and the UK’s own Storm Ciara almost scuppered our adventure from the start. Paul’s joke about a plague of locusts even happened too, although luckily for us in Africa, not the Far East. It was a gruelling 53-hour journey but within moments of reaching the small fishing town of Estancia, we both realised we had very little to complain about…
The Music Man Project’s visit to the Philippines was our 5th international expedition in as many years, following teaching trips to South Africa, India, Nepal and the United States of America. When Typhoon Yolanda hit the country in 2013, nurse Catherine Greenwood travelled to one of the worst affected regions of Estancia, Panay Island to help. She was met with utter devastation and the three months she spent there changed her life. 6 years later, in a meeting at our local Costa Coffee in Leigh-on-Sea (another small fishing town), Cathy explained her plans for “Music and Medicine” in which she would return to Estancia to deliver medicine and The Music Man Project would run a four-day music education programme for children, culminating in a public performance to the local community.
Our host in the Philippines was Melinda Irvine, a remarkable Australian woman who, like Cathy, answered the call to help in 2013. The two met in Estancia and developed a lasting friendship. Mel couldn’t stay away and has spent most of the last 7 years supporting the community after the aid agencies left. She learnt the language, developed connections with local officials, ran activities for children and sponsored families. Mel also adopted a little street boy called Jerry, who lost his family around the time of the disaster. Cathy and Mel are determined and inspirational women whose friendship led to one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.
The view from our hotel was picture perfect: stunning beaches weaving along a coastline dotted with fishing boats against a backdrop of volcanic islands. In contrast, the locals live in tarpaulin-roofed shacks with one bed per 8 children and a water well surrounded by wild dogs. It can be very difficult for families living in rural communities to access health services and due to lack of education and poverty, many people are afraid to go to the doctor. There are also people whose birth was never registered, so they don’t officially ‘exist’ - no birth certificate or ID. Their parents earn money by selling crisps and sweets from an opening in their shack.
School is a privilege in Estancia. Many children are forced into work or roam the streets begging. They risk disease, neglect, trafficking and child sexual exploitation. The shock of losing family and seeing their homes destroyed also causes long-lasting mental illness. They live a hand-to-mouth, dangerous and often traumatic existence but I found a warm and sharing community who were grateful and excited to receive visitors. Despite their primitive existence, the children were immaculately dressed in crisp white shirts that gleamed in the bright sunshine as they walked to school.
In line with the new Music Man Project charity objectives, our visit served vulnerable children with and without a learning disability. Our itinerary included 3 visits to the Botongon Elementary School, 3 visits to a class for children with Special Needs at the Estancia Central Elementary School (known as ‘SPEDs’), 2 workshops for disabled children in a remote township who never leave their homes, a meeting with the local Mayor and a public concert to the local community to officially launch ‘The Music Man Project Philippines’ . The debut performance brought them all together for a great big musical party. Our commitments in the UK meant that all this had to be squeezed into the most rewarding 4 days imaginable.
Approaching Botongon School for the first time, our driver (known as ‘Uncle Bob’) accidentally ran over a wild dog. The yelping animal limped a little and then seemed fine, but it was not the best way to start. I was in the front passenger seat but hardly noticed the incident and had no idea what the word for “STOP” was in Filipino anyway. Perhaps I was distracted by the family of 13 balanced precariously on the back of a passing tuck-tuck tricycle. As we toured the school, we were followed by hordes of excited, giggling children. Young girls diligently swept the floors while young boys tended to the school allotment. In the blazing sunshine we unpacked the piano, distributed the percussion instruments and began our first 2 ½ hour rehearsal. Ably assisted by Elben, our helpful school teacher, the children worked hard to sing the words (in their second language), sign the actions and play the instruments. Before long they were humming the tunes around the school. Our first attempt to teach our programme to mainstream school children had been a resounding success.
At the Special Needs class, we were confronted by children busily making things out of paper. The teacher explained that her pupils were selling bracelets so they could eat at a local fast food restaurant. They needed to make 1000 bracelets and sell them for 7.5p each to be able to afford a £1.50 burger. One blind pupil called Jenny sang Music is Magic and then, to my surprise, improvised beautiful phrases over my piano playing. It was a truly special moment which rooted everyone to the spot and prompted tears of joy from her proud teachers. Jenny would repeat the feat in the final concert two days later. I felt at home here, surrounded by the same faces, characteristics and mannerisms I have taught for 20 years in the UK and around the world. People with learning disabilities form a unique international community and I am honoured to connect them through my music.
When we finished teaching, the children presented us with 8 burgers from the fast food restaurant. We were to consume the value of 160 hard-earned bracelets! We wanted to refuse but it would have been offensive to do so.
Visiting isolated disabled children was by far the most moving experience of the trip. Within a few square miles we found 8 individuals with a range of physical and learning disabilities. They had no access to education, therapy or healthcare. They could never leave their township homes. I immediately recalled my experience at the United Nations in New York where I could see no reference to these desperate children (see previous blog
“Who is the UN for?” ). I didn’t see anyone in chains, but I only visited a small area and wondered where the other children with disabilities were hidden.
Feeling like Indiana Jones with a piano, I walked through the dirty narrow paths, passed the cock fighting and wild dogs, around the stagnant, smelly water and into a clearing in the forest. I placed my hat on the floor and started to play.
Soon we were surrounded by the whole community, including many children from the elementary school we had visited earlier in the day. Out of their pristine uniforms but with the same cheeky grins, the children were keen to show us they had remembered the words and signs to our songs. My focus though was on the children with disabilities. Many had been carried from their houses and, in line with everything The Music Man Project stands for, became the stars of the show.
The other children delighted in the achievements of their less able siblings and friends. For one hour, corruption, poverty and typhoons were forgotten as mothers, aunties and grandmas joined their children in singing our strange English songs.
Even the men returning from another gruelling day at sea looked on with tacet admiration, albeit tinged with bemusement. When we finished, the women barked at their men to help us pack up and carry the equipment back down to the main road. As we were leaving the township, exhausted after a long hot day, we passed one of the school teachers from earlier in the day. She was returning home to her shack.
The Music Man Project Philippines Debut Concert
The venue for our final concert was the grandly named “Plaza Gym of Estancia”. In reality this was a derelict basketball court that, like so many buildings, had obviously never recovered from the Typhoon of 2013. Our rehearsals started with a spontaneous basketball match with the local children, who literally ran rings around Paul and I - despite us both being 6ft 2! We needed a PA system to fill the outside venue and Bob drove us to a potential supplier so Mel could negotiate the best price. Within a few moments she ran out of the building with great excitement, demanding that we came in with her. To our surprise, the sound engineer was none other than the brother of Jenny, our blind star soloist! She was sitting right next to him smiling. We had found our PA system and a wonderful example of synchronicity. For £90 we received two huge stacks of speakers, monitors, microphones, a mixing desk and a team of 6 men to deliver, set up and operate during the performance. As Sarah Mann from Music Man Project Kent posted on Facebook, we could have been heard in Manila!
Filipino time is more flexible than UK time so, 40 minutes after the advertised 5pm start, the proceedings slowly began. Flanked by the great and the good of Estancia, the Mayor of Estancia sat centre stage grinning in anticipation as Elben welcomed everyone to the Plaza Gym. He proudly delivered poems and quotes about music before announcing each dignitary in turn. At the last minute we were joined by a team of nurses who had been working with Cathy on the Medical Mission earlier in the day. Many speeches and votes of thanks ensued before we finally gave our debut performance in the Philippines.
The children performed 7 Music Man Project songs, including the world premiere of “Botongon”. Jenny sung her Music is Magic solo, as did Odiva, a young pupil from the Elementary School wearing a beautiful pink dress and clutching her very own portable fan to keep cool. We named her Odiva the Diva!
As soon as the music started, the same magical atmosphere floated over us as at the Royal Albert Hall. It felt like our whole international community was with us, singing along to the same universal songs. High Low Middle was predictably the most celebrated song, although I am not sure everyone knew what Reggae, Ragtime, Boogie-Woogie and Can-Can meant. Remarkably Gangnam style and the Floss were far more global dance moves!
The climax of the concert was the official presentation of Mel as the new Music Man Project Director for the Philippines. We ceremonially handed her a songbook and Music Man Project T-shirt. Mel’s love of music as a guitar playing, singer songwriter combined with her dedication and knowledge of the local community makes her the perfect person to continue our work. Watch the inaugural Music Man Project Philippines concert here.
On behalf of everyone at The Music Man Project, I thank the two inspirational women who made this teaching trip possible. Catherine Greenwood, for her vision, organisation and fundraising to cover our costs, and Melinda Irvine for her unyielding enthusiasm and commitment to the Estancia community over so many years. Special thanks to Daunton Todd from the UK who joined our teaching team and captured so many wonderful pictures and videos. Finally, I thank the Filipino members of the team: Em for her amazing food, the incredibly helpful Rivie who captured all our hearts and of course our driver Uncle Bob! Mind the dog Bob!
To think Paul and I were almost persuaded not to go…
Read a blog by Music Man Project Philippines Director, Mel Irvine here.
Listen to The Music Man Project Podcast Philippines Special here.
Watch the full video story of the The Music Man Project Philippines Expedition here.