The thirtieth country that I had the pleasure of traveling to was none other than the sparsely populated and tiny Marshall Islands. The capitol, Majuro, bobs in the middle of the Pacific with enough room for an airplane to land astride a 30 mile road. Approximately 79,000 people live atop this scattering of coral and sand atolls glued together with palm trees and salt. Marshellese people, at one time, voyaged between the 29 islands with ease using their surprisingly accurate stick chart maps that they constructed out of bits of wood and shells. To say that they were attuned to their environment would be an understatement. Everywhere you look you see the ocean; wave patterns, wind and bird movements become part of your ingrained senses. These people could lay in the bottom of a boat and tell where they were based on the pattern and frequency of the waves. This sense of place and belonging was something I was reminded of again and again, not only because their love of this place is so strong, but because there is also no place else to go. Flights are expensive and infrequent. Yearly wages are miniscule. Getting off the island might never happen in a lifetime. Yet, even with limited options, there is an amazing upwelling of hope and happiness amongst the people that we interacted with. Over the week of time spent working there we played at 5 different schools full of kids with surprisingly accurate pitch, rhythm and ability to harmonize. We were able to work with one group in particular called Youth to Youth for more than 6 hours of time. Like any high school group it was sometimes like pulling teeth to get them to engage and talk about issues that they face, but once the doors were open we got a deep glimpse into how these young people think. As part of our program, we ended up workshopping and re-writing one of our songs with them. The song we chose is called High Away and Gone a cry against mountain top removal in the USA. We asked the children to re-write the lyrics to High Away and Gone with topics that were important to them. There was a long list of issues that they compiled including teen pregnancy, population growth, trash, cultural fading and domestic abuse however the most mentioned topic was sea level rise. Climate change is something that the Marshellese people are grappling with as waters rise and storms become more intense ruining livelihoods and property. We had planned to play the re-written "High Away" with the students during our final concert on the island but fate had it that our show was rained out by a sudden cloudburst of typhoon quality weather. We tried to wait out the storm, huddled underneath a tent and taking turns holding the stakes to the ground but eventually we decided to play acoustic in a nearby tent. As the rain came down we sang our new song with the kids in front of the US Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, Thomas Armbruster, and about 75 local Marshallese people who were waiting out the weather. It was an intimate and beautiful moment singing about real issues with these young people and empowering them to write and express. Below are some of the new lyrics we came up with:
Many hungry mouths to feed,
We need space to plant the seed,
Our island is a sacred space,
This is where we were born and raised.
This opportunity to work with Youth to Youth, in depth, on topics that were so important to them was one of the best experiences we've ever had working with American Music Abroad. To have time to get to know one another, establish trust and then to get into the meat of a real topic was a luxury that we had not had before. It was also eye opening to travel to a place that was so affected by climate change. Its easy to forget about how critical of a situation we are in when we are not the ones sinking into the ocean. The Marshallese may not have a country to call their own within the next 30 years, and without the efforts of the entire global community, they will lose everything. In conclusion, the first stop on our latest AMA tour, The Marshall Islands, was a great success. Komol Ta Ta (Thank you) to all those beautiful Marshellese children living in the middle of the South Pacific, may they become the agents of change for their communities and may we have a little more perspective on our ties to one another.