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December 12, 2017
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Pianist Panos Karan, founder of Keys of Change, introduces classical music to a new audience along the Amazon River. (Source: keysofchange.org).

In January 1985, after several months of rallying influential activists, fundraisers and musicians, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie completed writing the melody and lyrics to "We Are The World". It was just one night before a supergroup of the music industry's most famous artists would gather together in the recording studio. The song became a worldwide commercial success, topping music charts across the globe and raising over $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa and the United States. A remake of the song was released in February 2010 in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Producer Quincy Jones commented on the profound impact of the project, saying that a song will never lose its power to motivate change: "Music will be the last thing to leave this planet." 

Armed with the Jones' belief in music as a catalyst for change, but using a vastly different approach, pianist Panos Karan founded Keys of Change. On November 11, 2011, Karan and a small team embarked on a one-month tour (for the second time) along the Amazon River performing classical piano recitals for isolated communities in Ecuador and Peru. As part of its mission to build and support sustainable music education programmes in remote areas, the charity aims to develop musical and creative skills in children while taking care to preserve the connections with their culture and traditions. Keys of Change's vision to instigate change through music education is based on the words of acclaimed musician and pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method of Musical Instruction: "If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart."

If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.

Captained by a local guide, a boat carries Karan and his team from village to village, along with their tents and supplies, an electronic keyboard, a couple of amplifiers, and an electricity generator. When the group arrives at a new village, Karan seeks out the elders and offers to perform, doing so only if the elders embrace the opportunity and invite him to share his music. On Keys of Change's blog, the group reported, "Every time we step into a community, it is very difficult to predict if they are going to accept us or see us as intruders". The venues for the recitals are improvised, whether in a classroom, a village's communal house, or an open field on the banks of the Amazon River and the piano and the other equipment often has to be carried up a hill from the boat. Karan performs works by classical greats such as Bach, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and music from his native country of Greece. He also improvises using indigenous chords and melodies.

Communicating through music is more challenging than one might assume. Karan says, "Playing to such audiences requires a lot of emotional involvement. Specific pieces do not matter, it's the expression and feelings that need to be passed on to the audience. Emotionally detached music for them will stop being music, and become a mere collection of sounds."

The response from audiences is mainly positive ranging from joyous dancing and clapping to absolute silence. "Silence and motionless here represent what a standing ovation would be in a concert hall" as the villagers stay completely still at the end of a concert in anticipation of more music. Many of the children who have never seen a piano before curiously, yet timidly, touch and explore the keys as Karan teaches them to play a melody and they ask him why he does not sing while he plays, since their music always has words. Although shy at first, kids of all ages express their gratitude to Karan, for without this experience they may have never had the opportunity to hear classical music.

Panos Karan gives the
president of the Guajoya
Community a few piano tips
at the keyboard.
(Source: keysofchange.org)

"A Bach Prelude and Fugue and a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto belong to the Amazon Rainforest as much as to the glamorous stage of Carnegie Hall," says Karan. "Through Keys of Change, I am reaching places and people who wouldn't get a chance to witness a concert of this kind or to experience playing notes on a keyboard. This kind of audience inspires me immeasurably. Travelling by canoe, carrying a piano keyboard and sharing music with virgin audiences gives a whole new meaning to being a performing artist."

Obviously rewarding to the musician, but what are the practical changes for the communities involved? Through this cultural exchange, Keys of Change is establishing networks and identifying communities with the need, desire, and potential to benefit from music education. It has partnered with The Condor Trust for Education in Ecuador to sponsor several children in the Amazon so these children can continue their secondary school education and be provided with music education. Keys of Change is also organizing volunteers to teach music and English to these and other students in Ecuador and Peru.

With music as a vehicle for change, one with no boundaries or borders, initiatives such as Keys of Change connect people. They are a bridge between societies which, at times, seem worlds apart, building understanding and compassion, and reminding us that we are all here on this earth together.


Website: www.keysofchange.org.

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