Songs on a Mission : A Seattle-based Teacher Brings Music Lessons to Latin America

Returning from class with students in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Colombia.

Feb 13, 2017

by Scout MacKay. There was a rusty Toyota Escort waiting for me across the footbridge from the little hostel on the beach. “Usted es el amigo de Christina? Are you Christina’s friend?” I asked the driver, making sure I was getting into the right car. I’d been in Colombia for less than 24 hours, and the tropical air was determined to dry out every leftover bit of sogginess from Seattle.

The man poured out a cup of stale coffee in the sand. “Si, si vamos. Ellos estan esperandose en Minca.They’re waiting for you in Minca.” I dropped my duffel bag loaded with 10 carefully bundled ukuleles into the trunk, he bungee- corded it shut, and after stopping for an iguana to leisurely cross the road, we headed into the mountains leaving the waves of the Caribbean behind.

The dirt road into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains became windy, and through the windows I could hear howler monkeys sounding the alert of our approach. Through the thickening trees, I caught glimpses of the waves crashing below, and indigenous Kogi men and women in traditional dress making their way to the shore to collect shells for their rituals. For six weeks, I’d stay in Minca, connecting with the community, school teachers, and non-profits, to teach the local children music and art.

There I’d meet Nubes, a teacher and a Saint, who’d put together a preschool of children from the town in her home. She, like a few others, had remained in Minca when a decade earlier the guerrillas had taken it over and claimed it as their own territory, demolishing the police station and several other public buildings with bombs. Many people had lost their lives and their loved ones. There were remnants throughout the town of the violence imposed by F.A.R.C. (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), most of them written in people’s faces.

In Nubes’ eyes, I could see that she had witnessed her world drastically fall apart, but more than anything, there was a contagious light and confidence that illuminated the kitchen as she made hot oat drinks for the children and invited me with my backpack loaded with a couple ukuleles and art supplies into her home.

The radiance of Nubes was shared by many people in the community, and guided the optimism and confidence for putting things back together. It was in the river, where children and I went swimming as a local farmer laughed, “Just watch out for the Muerte Caballo, “horse killer” snake!” It was in the local soccer games, the highlight of every weekday evening, either because of the fantastically skilled players or the dogs and kids that charged on to the field chase the chickens off at half time.

The first day I advertised music and art classes walking from one end of town to the other, passing the occasional loose donkey grazing in the garbage, I found myself accompanied by 17 eager children, ages five to 13, after just half an hour of knocking on doors. Later, when people asked me how I established my project in Colombia, I responded that I was simply exactly where and when I wanted and needed to be.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this euphoric feeling teaching children. From 2006 to 2007, I’d practically been immersed in it for nine months when I had taught in the cloud forest of Costa Rica.

At 18 years old and fresh out of high school, instead of applications to college, I pulled out maps and tour books of Latin America and dove into a year of volunteer teaching at the Cloud Forest School in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Not shortly after my first month of leading first graders through jungle trails with my guitar in hand and establishing rules like, “don’t bring baby coral snakes into the classroom or hummingbirds onto the bus”, a teacher came up to me and said, “There’s a group of kids who want to play guitar after school.” I remember walking into a classroom at the top of the hill and arriving to find six students with guitars expecting a teacher who would show them how to play. There was an awkward moment of silence as I realized that I’d never done this before.

“We need a mission,” I told my students. “Are we a band? Are we songwriters?”

“We want to be musicians,” said one of the kids. I showed the class a basic rhythmic strumming pattern how to switch from an A to an E chord and helped the younger ones find the places in between the frets with their fingers. From that moment on, I was a music teacher. With the addition of a D chord, the class composed a short song:

“It’s really hard to learn to play guitar

But once you know

It’s growing in your heart

Growing, growing in your heart.”

That year, I gave my students music and they gave me the Spanish language and a lifelong passion for teaching. That passion has taken me to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Colombia, the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, and from Camden, Maine to Seattle, Washington.

In April 2016, I checked in with my students from 10 years prior in Monteverde, Costa Rica. During lunch break from their 10th and 11th grade math classes, my first music students brought out guitars to the tables and played their original songs for me. They were the musicians they wanted to be.

When I unfold a map across my lap, I look at the borders and wonder what it would be like to live in a world without them. I find that is the world of music.

Through my projects teaching music in Latin America, I’ve had my heart and eyes widened and rewired. I’ve been challenged, but the truth is when I’ve been in the right place at the right time, I’ve never done anything easier.

Scout MacKay teaches more than 40 students piano, voice, guitar, songwriting and composition in the Seattle area. She also travels annually to Latin America where she provides instruments, art supplies and music lessons as tools for developing communities.

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