The Canadian musician who teaches in slums in Rio de Janeiro

The harps that Canadian Gianetta Baril brings to teach in Brazil weigh just over 20 kg and are included as excess baggage in air travel, protected by bubble wrap and cardboard. Heavy? In art history, however, the image of this instrument is different. The harp even seems light when seen in the hands of angels. In the classroom, it is the voice that Gianetta’s students learn to use to “sing with their fingers,” as the musician says. No matter what the best definition is, the harpist believes that words lose strength when faced with the power of music.

“There are ideas that we communicate best in English and others in French because languages have barriers and we are always thinking of the best words to speak what we want. In music, there are no barriers because we communicate very deep things even without saying a word,” says Gianetta, with the authority of someone who speaks English, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. The latter she learned especially to start social works in Brazilian slums. Moreover, she made a point of granting the interview for this article in the language of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

In her career of over 30 years, the Toronto Canadian lived in Edmonton with her family as a child. Her mother, Lucie, was a choir and children’s music teacher. Her father, Armand Baril, who died three years ago, devoted his entire life to music. One of his major jobs was as musical director of shows at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation for three decades, a sort of BBC in Canada.

Gianetta’s first contact with the harp happened very early on her life. But as her parents decided to enroll her at the age of five in piano lessons, her dedication to the harp began at age 11, when she returned to her hometown to have classes with award-winning harpist Judie Loman, a member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 2004.

In 2011, a Brazilian friend learned that Gianetta was planning a sabbatical year and invited her to spend some time in Brazil dedicated to the Social Action for Music project. The idea of the sabbatical came after a trip to Nepal, where one of the harper’s four children had a serious mountain accident that left him at first paralyzed and speechless.

When she learned what happened, she got in on the first flight to support her son and was very well supported by the people she met along the way. With the overall improvement in her son’s health, Gianetta felt the need to return one day to repay the Asian country for the way she was treated.

That’s when, at her church in Calgary, she learned of a project on a farm in Nepal that welcomes children whose parents are serving time in prison. A project that eventually became one of her most remarkable destinations and gave her a great lesson in solidarity.

“Before I went there, I thought I would work directly with the children. I did spend time with them, but my main job was to help harvest and maintain the farm’s infrastructure,” she says. “This experience makes you learn to give yourself completely and help with what people need, not necessarily what you initially think of offering.”

The trip that took place in 2014 involved 28 flights to 12 countries such as Australia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Fiji, Thailand, Laos, and Turkey. Her friend’s invitation to act in Brazil was accepted. And six months before the trip, Gianetta was informed that the project was still on the table, but they could not provide a harp for the classes she would give the children.

From then on, the musician led the Harping for Harps initiative, which initially raised USD 10,000 to buy three harps sent from France to Rio de Janeiro. Today, that number has reached ten, and Gianetta has been developing new harps alongside a Brazilian luthier with materials that she helps to choose and import. To this day, the two of them have built five harps. The goal is to create more affordable instruments with international quality standards.

The first project in Brazil was held in Vassouras, about an hour and a half from Rio de Janeiro state capital. In the South Zone of Rio, she was at Rocinha School of Music and in the Chapéu Mangueira community. She also visited the Cultural Space of Grota, in a community in Niterói, and the State Centers for Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Bahia (Neojiba) in Salvador.

One of Neojiba’s students currently studies music at a university in Indiana, USA. However, Gianetta believes that her biggest success regarding her work is not about turning people into musicians. “Our project provides discipline, promotes meetings and friendships, encourages creativity, teamwork. The idea is for them to move away from the violence that exists in the communities where they live and to know new possibilities,” she says.

When she began teaching harp in Brazil, Gianetta spent five months in the country. Now, she comes back at least twice a year to teach and uses the rest of her time to talk with students and other online teachers to answer questions and convey knowledge. “Work only makes sense if it is continuous, and that is the role of teachers. That’s why I only dedicate myself to very solid projects,” she says.

Gianetta’s relationship with the harp is almost metaphysical. She explains that an orchestra can count on dozens of violins but very few harps, and, in many cases, only one. “I see it as if every child in the project had the sound of a harp in their soul. What can every child do with this unique harp? It’s a giant responsibility to help them do their best,” she says.