Dance, love, sing, live

The Mercy Center's music programme is a testament to the shelter's ongoing success story

Sunday music class at Mercy Center. Photos: John Clewley

Father Joseph Maier, an Irish American priest who has dedicated his life to helping marginalised and abused children in Klong Toey, Bangkok, will be well-known to long-time readers of the Bangkok Post. His short stories on these children and their struggles are, in my view, among the best written in the Bangkok Post. They present some of the saddest yet most uplifting tales you'll read about. Father Joe’s stories pull at the heart strings and make you take notice.

That Father Joe manages to write these stories at all is amazing; where does he find the time? Father Joe set up and runs the Mercy Center, a shelter for street kids, encompassing five orphanages, a hospice, homes for mothers and children infected with HIV/Aids, a large kindergarten (for more than 300 children) and a communal meeting place. In addition, he set up the Human Development Foundation to organise community services which include drug rehabilitation, small business financing and welfare assistance.

It had been a few years since I last visited the Mercy Center, so when Irish music and Irish studies expert Prof Mick Moloney invited me to see the Sunday music programme there, I jumped at the chance.

Mick Moloney is an award-winning traditional musician (an expert on the banjo) and academic, born in Limerick, Ireland, but resident in the US for many years. He’s performed on over 70 albums and has taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. He spends up to six months a year here in Bangkok and is currently teaching a course in politics at Thammasat University.

About 15 years ago, he suggested to Father Joe that it would be fun to set up a music programme for children at the Mercy Center. Both men agreed and Moloney began to collect instruments: drums, bass guitars, and Thai instruments like ranat and ching (temple bells). He has also raised funds for the programme. Later, Prof Terry Miller of Kent State University and an expert on lam music from Isan, sourced and provided a range of traditional northeastern instruments, which encouraged many boys to join the programme.

On the Sunday I visited, the music room on the 3rd floor of the Mercy Center was packed with children of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers. The programme, explained Moloney, is taught by teachers and students from Mahidol University. When we arrived, one of the older girls was practising a solo dance to the accompaniment of traditional music. Younger students were being shown the fingering and patterns of their instruments by older classmates.

Then others joined the dance and the whole room came alive to the sound of music and the graceful moves of the dancers. Smiles broke out among the participants. The boys declined to join the girls dancing, preferring to bash away at drums, rhythm sticks (chap), temple bells (ching) and their favourite, the bonglang - a wooden xylophone from Isan that is usually tied to a tree and played almost vertically. You can certainly get rid of some excess energy with a bash on the bonglang.

Prof Moloney reminded me that nearly all the children in the class had sad personal histories. Many have HIV. Few knew their parents. But you would not know any of that from observing the music class; sure, some kids were reluctant to get involved, but they were gently coaxed by the elder students to join in, have some fun and just enjoy the music and dance.

And some of those kids can really dance and play. But the overwhelming impression I got from my visit was the sense of joy the children got just by taking part in the class. As Bob Marley once said: “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

If you wish to contribute, volunteer or donate to the Mercy Center, contact The Human Development Foundation through the website mercycentre.org.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.