When Darden Smith took his guitar to his daughter’s preschool a decade ago, he had no idea how far the tunes would carry him. In early May, the singer-songwriter found himself writing songs with AIDS and HIV-positive patients and caregivers in a township on the edge of Johannesburg, South Africa, and hearing a freshly minted composition sung back to him on the dirt roads of a village in Botswana.
“It was life changing, and I’m not entirely sure to what extent, just yet,” said the 50-year-old central Texas native in a recent phone call from his favorite café in Austin. “I was reminded of the beauty of traveling not as a tourist. When you’re traveling to work, and your work is music, people open up to you, and you’re able to see things in a really different way than if you’re there as a tourist.”
Smith traveled to southern Africa with a photojournalism crew that was documenting the work of FAWN (Fighting AIDS with Nutrition). The trip was a logical outgrowth of Smith’s The Be An Artist Program, inaugurated in 2003, in which he uses songwriting to help students tap and express their innate creativity. “I was asked to sing some songs for my daughter’s preschool,” he explained, “but I didn’t know any kids’ songs. So I went and wrote a song with her class. What I noticed was that they remembered the song the next day, and then for the next week, the kids would be on the swing set writing new verses to the song. I was really intrigued by that.”
Smith ran with that epiphany and has since taken his guitar, microphone, and Garage Band–equipped laptop to schools across the United States and in France, Germany, and the U.K. Not only have some 10,000 students participated in the program, but Smith has also adapted the fundamentals of Be An Artist for sessions with entrepreneurs-in-training at Oklahoma State University, homeless teens in New Jersey, and wounded soldiers back from their tours of duty.
A country-folk recording artist since 1986, Smith has released more than a dozen albums (including his latest, 2010’s Marathon), scored a Top Ten pop hit (1993’s “Loving Arms”), and composed symphony (Grand Motion, premiered in Austin in 1999). But he seems most proud of the songs that come out of his collaborations with strangers, such as the homeless kids at Covenant House in Newark, New Jersey.
“A lot of these kids have never really been given the chance to express themselves,” Smith said, “so at first they don’t say anything. But once they start talking—they don’t think they’re writing songs, they think they’re talking—that frees them up. I find a rhythm in the words, play some chords on my guitar, and we sing it into my laptop. Then I run through Garage Band and then email it to them as an mp3. ‘Wow, we wrote a song,’ I tell them. ‘Those are your words. I couldn’t have written this song without you. You had to say that so I could hear it, and now we have this song.’”
In South Africa, Smith visited the Katlehong township, which he described as “maybe 350,000 people living in an area that’s a mile or two square, with electricity that might go out every day, and not even enough money to support a drug trade.” He heard story after story of entire families devastated by HIV and AIDS, and he visited a cemetery where the keepers dig fresh graves every evening, knowing they’ll be filled soon.
“In order to get in there and write with them,” Smith explained, “I had to work really hard to let go of my ideas about what I was seeing and stop thinking this is right or wrong, this is terrible or not terrible, and just go, OK, this is what I’m looking at, this is how they perceive it, and this is what they’re saying. I just took notes on their words and wrote songs from that.”
In Botswana, Smith’s group rode in van from Gabarone to the rural village of Sefhare. He wrote one song, “Love Heals All Wounds,” with Thabo Kebawefetso, who was acting as a kind of fixer, translator, and cultural interpreter. (Listen to Love Heals All Wounds.)
“When the sky keeps on falling / When the fever keeps on rising / When the ground keeps on shifting / And the days are dark / Love is coming your way.
“These arms are open wide / For you to come, come inside / Love heals all wounds / Love heals all wounds.”
On his second night in Botswana, Smith wrote another song, “Beautiful Night in Sefhare.” “I wrote it because these kids, Angel and Innocent [shown with Smith at top], would dance when I played,” he said. “Whenever I got into any kind of blues groove or Bo Diddley beat on my guitar, they’d go crazy.
“The next morning I was walking through the village at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and a woman came out of her house, put her hands over her head, and started dancing—and singing, ‘It’s a beautiful night in Sefhare.’ By the afternoon, I took another walk in another part of the village, and there was an old woman bathing her granddaughter in a wash basin, and she said, ‘Hey, Mister Guitar, it’s a beautiful night in Sefhare.’
“Wow! It showed me how music does transcend, and all that stuff about right or wrong, what I have and they don’t have, what they have and I don’t have, what their life is and what my life is—it all wipes clean. The slate can be wiped clean with music. Being a musician in that place, I felt so blessed, because there was no way I’d have been welcomed in that way if I’d not had my guitar.”
Read more about Darden Smith on his website.