More than just a festival: LEAF reaches out

LEAF International started on Jennifer Pickering‘s vacation.

While staying on Bequia in the Grenadines, the executive director of the popular Black Mountain-based Lake Eden Arts Festival walked into the Caribbean island’s high school for underperforming youth and asked about its steel-drum program. The instruments, known as “pans,” are part of the island’s music tradition, but only one person was learning to play them, the school’s principal said.

Making music together worldwide: Black Mountain-based LEAF International often draws on connections born of its parent arts festival. Working with singer/songwriter/activist David LaMotte, LEAF helped develop a music program in Guatemala. Photo courtesy LEAF International

So Pickering decided to raise money and launch a steel-pan program there. “Whenever you’re in a place, if you get involved somehow, your travel experience goes to a different level. You get to know people,” she notes.

Building on the success of the nonprofit’s LEAF in Schools & Streets program, LEAF International aims to empower youth through music and arts while forging cultural connections. Beyond Bequia, the nonprofit’s outreach extends to five other countries: Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Rwanda and, most recently, Tanzania.

LEAF International members are in Tanzania through the end of March with the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots project. The plan is to kick off “Celebuka!” music programs in three locations: Arusha in the north, Dar es Salaam on the coast and the Lugufu refugee camp in the west. Celebuka means “dance and sing and celebrate” in Swahili, according to LEAF’s organizers.

The LEAF team and Roots & Shoots will develop curriculum, seek out Tanzanian musicians and mentors to lead the programs, and equip them with traditional instruments.

Part of the program’s success comes from connections made through the festival, says Erica Bell, LEAF’s development director. For example, the nonprofit’s Guatemalan program began as a partnership with local singer/songwriter David LaMotte (who left music for activism as a Rotary World Peace Fellow, and to pursue a master’s in international relations, peace and conflict resolution).

Earlier this year, the Mizero Children of Rwanda (2007 LEAF festival veterans) returned to Western North Carolina to perform at three local schools, the Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast and at White Horse Black Mountain (to a sold-out crowd). Survivors of the Rwandan genocide, the orphaned children perform with a contagious exuberance, says Bell.

“Music is a powerful tool for children’s self-esteem, healing, rhythm, learning skills, positive development, hope, skills and creating a healthy, happier community,” LEAF International’s mission statement notes. “Experiencing art, music and unique cultures transforms us as individuals and as a global community.”

As a nonprofit, LEAF International depends on donations: Warren Wilson College and the online music store eMusic are sponsoring the Tanzania program. But the group also relies heavily on Pickering’s enthusiasm.

“I can’t believe all the things she can get done in one day,” Bell says about her.

Pickering, meanwhile, believes that although music isn’t food or water, it’s still an integral part of the human experience—accessible to everyone, with a not-to-be-underestimated power to bring hope.

“I do believe it’s one of the easiest tools to make your life better,” says Pickering.

Info: LEAF International (


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