January 21, 2010 in Nation/World

Haitian virtuoso lost wife, school, but vows to rebuild

Blind violinist’s wife died in Haiti’s earthquake
Michael Sallah McClatchy
 

MIAMI – Somewhere in the dust and blood of his own grave, blind violinist Romel Joseph began to play the strains of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto.

Even with his left leg pinned in the rubble of his collapsed music school, he moved onto Brahms and then Mozart.

By the time he was pulled from the ruins of the New Victorian School 18 hours later, he had recited every concerto in his mind that he had ever performed during his renowned career.

“I never thought I would get out,” said Joseph, who has already undergone two surgeries at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital to repair his shattered legs. “The earth just opened up.”

Despite his remarkable rescue after last week’s earthquake, the 50-year-old violinist – like so much of his homeland – must now confront wrenching losses.

His pregnant wife, Myslie, 26, perished in the disaster two floors below him. The school where he taught classical music to impoverished Haitians, in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Turgeau near the National Palace, is destroyed.

Yet even in the heartache, Joseph said he came to a stark conclusion while lying in the rubble: He needs to rebuild his school and continue teaching children the beauty of classical music.

“As long as Haiti has children, you have a purpose of being there,” said the father of two children from a previous marriage who reside in Miami.

He may not be able to join them. With two severe fractures in his left hand, the Juilliard graduate may not be able to play the violin again.

“Two of my fingers are fractured,” he said from his hospital bed on Wednesday. “At this time, the doctors don’t know.”

Born in poverty in a northern village in Haiti, the middle of five children, Joseph – blind in one eye and barely able to see shadows in the other – was raised by nuns in a boarding school in Port-au-Prince. There, he was first exposed to the string instrument that would become his life’s passion.

With the help of scholarships and a Fulbright grant, he went on to the University of Cincinnati and the Juilliard School, where he earned degrees in violin performance. By the time he trained with the Boston Symphony, he was married with two children to come.

Instead of launching his own musical career in the United States, he turned to help the poorest of the poor in Haiti.

“He could have recorded. He could have done so many things. But he wanted to go back,” said his daughter, Victoria, 22, a senior music major at the University of Miami.

After opening his private, nonprofit school in 1991, he began providing music and general education to grade-school children. Students are able to attend through scholarships and private funding.

It was while he was trapped in the twisted metal and concrete blocks – cramped, trembling and alone – that he said his life’s arc passed through his mind.

He thought of his daughter and son, Bradley, 17. He thought of his pregnant wife, whom he married in October. He thought of his students, who were out of the building when the quake struck.

Joseph just as easily could have been with his wife when the concrete, five-story school was ripped into pieces. He had just left their apartment on the first floor when he walked to the third floor of the school to deliver a phone message to a friend. “I was on the balcony,” he said.

Suddenly, he was thrust over the side – the floors crashing on top of him and pinning him into what he now calls “a grave.”

“I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “I’m way down. I keep calling: ‘Can anyone hear me?’ I spent my first two hours trying to look for ways to get out.”

At some point, he began to calm his breathing and decided to whisper a prayer.

“I’ve never been someone you would call religious,” he said. “I’m not a pastor, and I’m not a church person. But I just said, ‘Either I survive this, and if I do, I want you to tell me what to do.’ ”

He said he began to reflect on “all the things that Jesus has done for me,” and in the passing hours, he said he was struck by what he called two commands: Rebuild the school, and teach the children of Haiti.

He said he began to hear voices of people outside the rubble searching for him, including his friend from the third floor.

While he waited, he began to play the concertos in his mind – musical works in which a solo instrument, such as a violin, is accompanied by an orchestra.

Bleeding and battered, he was pulled out last Wednesday, his legs fractured with deep cuts. Nails took chunks from his flesh.

A dual citizen of Haiti and the United States, he managed to get a hospital flight to Homestead, Fla., on Friday and was whisked to the hospital.

Daughter Victoria, the music major, said her father is driven to rebuild, partly as a way to deal with the pain of his wife’s death.

“He always told me that the secret of living in Haiti is that you can’t save the whole country. You have to do it one person, one child, one situation at a time and hope that that one person will help another,” Victoria said.


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