Grand Forks man wrote, produced album to raise funds for Haitian orphanage
It was only a week of his life, but the indelible effects of Troy Erickson's experience in Haiti after a catastrophic earthquake inspired the songwriter within and a new outlook on life.
In January 2010, Erickson traveled to Haiti on a mission trip to help with recovery efforts in the wake of the disaster that wrought "breathtaking" devastation, he said.
Death toll estimates after the 7.0-magnitude quake varied widely, but some agencies reported as many as 300,000 people died and 1.5 million became homeless.
Erickson, of Grand Forks, recently launched his first album, "Haiti Hymnal: A Mission Memoir," a collection of songs inspired by his time there. The album, a mix of modern Christian pop and rock music, is available for $20 at Ferguson Books and Media in Grand Forks, www.troyerickson.com and on iTunes.
Eighty percent of the album proceeds will be used to support the Reach Out to Haiti Orphanage in Bon Repos, an outlying village not far from the capital, Port-au-Prince, where he worked shortly after the disaster. The epicenter of the quake was 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince.
'Called' to help
Erickson learned of the opportunity to help the people of Haiti when Brenna Kerr, a fellow church member, spoke at the Grand Forks Seventh-day Adventist Church about her plan to put together a volunteer group to travel there.
Kerr talked about a call for help she'd received from Lacey Hewitt of Lancaster, Minn., who was working at the orphanage.
"I felt really called to do it," Erickson remembered. "But, at the same time, I was almost sad, because I had a wife and two kids then—one about 3 or 4 years old and a new little one, only a few months old. I thought, 'How can I ask her to let me go and do this?' "
It could've been dangerous, he said. Conditions were "so completely uncertain—it could've disintegrated into civil unrest."
"To my surprise she said, 'I think you should go.' "
Erickson joined a team of 10 volunteers from northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota to leave for Haiti about two weeks after the earthquake struck Jan. 12. Four of them were members of his church.
"It was the first experience I had with not only a mission trip but (also) relief (efforts) following a disaster," he said.
"I had no experience in a Third World country. I have friends, though, who have; they say every American should go at least once to appreciate our prosperity, and to be more aware and thankful for what we have."
In Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, more than half of the population live in crowded slums, and up to 60 percent survive on less than $2 a day.
"What kind of life does an orphan have down there?" he said. "And how much worse would it be after a natural disaster?
"Some people say Haiti is not a Third World country — it's a Fourth or Fifth World country."
Reconstruction, health care
The mission team included nurses and physician assistants, said Erickson, who works as a postal clerk in Grand Forks.
He and two others worked on rebuilding a portion of a tall cinder-block wall, which bordered the Reach Out to Haiti Orphanage, which had crumbled in the earthquake. Erickson estimated 12 to 24 children were living in the orphanage at the time.
"To secure it, we had to knock most of it down," he said. "We used that material to fill potholes in the neighborhood around the orphanage."
The extent of the devastation that engulfed the area was hard to comprehend, he said.
"There were piles of rubble everywhere. It was a humanitarian crisis of epic proportion — what with lack of access to usable water, food and supplies. ... There was destruction and loss everywhere.
"It was hard to wrap our heads around. It's estimated at least 250,000 people died," he said. "Every Haitian lost someone; some lost everyone. It was just staggering."
In the aftermath, the threat of a public health crisis loomed as well.
"Everywhere you went, structures were like pancakes. You knew they were basically tombs," Erickson said. "They didn't have the equipment or the (workers) or the infrastructure to get people out."
Remnants of buildings had to be bulldozed or the risk of widespread disease could overtake the population.
"Fourteen thousand bodies were buried at one site," he said. "It's ghastly to think about it."
In spite of the overwhelming destruction, chaos and loss of life, the Haitians he met were happy, Erickson said.
"I went there to demonstrate faith. They taught me what it's like to live by faith."
The mission trip, as short as it was, "had a profound effect on me," he said. "I got far more out of it.
"The experience gave me a huge desire to do something, to give something back. Being a songwriter, I came up with this (album). I can turn this collection out to friends and raise money for them."
Erickson began writing music in earnest in 2000 when, working in a steel press shop, the rhythm of the repetitive punching of steel conjured up music in his mind. Writing songs was a way to escape the drudgery and boredom of the job, he said.
"It's 'industrial rhythm,' of a sort; it gets into your head. It's a cool juxtaposition to write poetry in an industrial setting."
While working on the songs about Haiti, he stumbled on Fiverr.com, a website that connected him with instrumentalists, including string players and percussionists, who offered to perform music at very low rates.
"I found that, through this website, I could somehow get really quality (music) tracking from people around the world," said Erickson, who performed all the vocals on the album.
He sent written music and shared his ideas via email with musicians in countries such as Italy, France, Israel and Australia; they sent back their performances on audio file.
"Thirty-five different instrumentalists provided tracking parts for this project," he said. "Some were so deep in experience they improved on what I came up with. They improved the quality and, ultimately, the marketability of the product."
The album was "mixed and mastered" by an audio engineer in the Czech Republic, whom he also met via Fiverr.com, and replicated in the United States.
"I am very thankful to the people of Haiti," Erickson said. "(Without that experience,) I never would have fulfilled my lifelong dream. I never would have explored the idea of producing a high-quality, studio-quality release. ... Someone of my means would never be able to afford it."
To produce the album, with on-site musicians, in a professional studio would have cost $40,000 to $50,000, he said.
"And, for example, the fellow from Sardinia who played solo guitar — he provided some of the best recording and was a dream to work with. How would I have ever been able to collaborate with him?
"It's borderline miraculous for someone like me," he said. "I am still kind of amazed that I could accomplish it."
Need still great
In the years since the earthquake in Haiti, some progress has been made to restore the country and its economy to normalcy.
"It took four years to clean up the rubble in Haiti, but the need is still tremendous," he said.
"(When disaster strikes,) it's easy to respond quickly, but gradually, over time, the people and the country get forgotten."
He hopes the proceeds from the album will be a boon to the orphanage where he worked.
"I really fell in love with the people, because despite the loss they suffered, they were hospitable to us," he said. "They were so positive and helpful."
He remembers with fondness the children at the orphanage.
"Those kids were an amazing joy to interact with," he said. "They are beautiful, joyful kids (who) could make something out of — by our standards — almost nothing."
"(The Haitian people) are remarkable. I think about them every day," he said. "I look forward to when I can get back there."
He hopes to make a return visit "maybe after this (album) project is done," he said.
"The whole takeaway for me was not that I did something for them. They taught me by the way they lived. They're happy now; they're not waiting for the right circumstances."
When he feels like complaining, he realizes how minor his complaints are in comparison to what the Haitians deal with daily, he said.
"For me, it was a complete redirection of Western excess."