The first time Régine Chassagne went to Haiti, she witnessed a miracle. It was 2008, and she and husband Win Butler, her bandmate in Arcade Fire, were playing in the pediatric unit at a children’s hospital. A frail little boy wearing a yellow hospital gown was watching and started clapping once they finished the song, something Chassagne didn’t think much of until she saw the nurses looking at him and whispering to each other.
“When we walked out, they told me that that kid hadn’t moved in months and hadn’t been very responsive, and that’s the first time he sat up,” Chassagne told EW Sunday night during a benefit concert for the KANPE Foundation, which featured performances by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Arcade Fire. “And then later, I was back in Montreal, they sent me a photo of that kid, and he was a super chubby little boy. It was just… kind of a miracle to see that.”
Both Chassagne’s parents fled Haiti during Francois Duvalier’s deadly reign in the ’60s, and she waited until her mother — who would have nightmares as a result of the trauma — died to go to the Caribbean nation. Soon after going, she and Dominique Anglade co-founded KANPE, an organization focused on giving families in rural Haiti neighborhoods the resources and tools they need to thrive and become financially autonomous.
Sunday’s benefit, held at New York’s Soho Grand Hotel, marked KANPE’s first U.S. event and was attended by stars like Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, illusionist David Blaine, and Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Before introducing the night’s music, Chassagne and Anglade shared stories about their connection to Haiti, including what kind of work they set out to do and the surprises that have come up along the way — like what happened when Chassagne bought instruments for some kids in the area of Baille Tourible, where KANPE has focused its efforts.
“Instruments are not really on our list of priorities for our funds,” she confessed, “but I just decided, one day, I went to the music store and I bought all these instruments. I was like, ‘I’m not telling Win. I’m just putting it on my card.'”
Later, she received a photo of the children with their new instruments. “The kids were holding the flutes on the wrong side, the clarinets horizontal,” she said, laughing. Within a few months, they were holding the instruments correctly — and making (good!) music together thanks to the help of a teacher.
After Chassagne, Anglade, and others associated with KANPE spoke more about their experiences in Haiti, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band launched into a short, rousing set before Chassagne and Butler joined in to perform Funeral cut “Haiti.” Then, Butler spent a few minutes talking about the importance of helping Haiti.
“The idea of KANPE is to find the people who need the most, then work with the community and provide those people with the basic building blocks so that when KANPE leaves, they retain those gains and they’re able to do it themselves,” he explained. “The investment that we make in Haiti, the return is immense — and none of these things are mutually exclusive: I’m giving my money to Houston, I’m giving my money to Florida. It’s not like we have to pick our little causes. We’re all in this s— together.”
“The thing is, if we can do it in Haiti, if we can do it in the most difficult part of Haiti, then we can take this model and we can apply it in Chicago, we can apply it in New Orleans,” he continued, later vowing to donate all proceeds from his DJ gigs this year to Haiti. “I’m a horrible DJ, but people pay money for celebrities to hit ‘play,'” Butler, who performs under the name DJ Windows98, joked.
“We’re in this s— for our entire lives,” he concluded. “Haiti is something that’s always going to be important, and we’re going to be there for every other thing that comes up.”
Next, they played “Everything Now,” off their recently released album of the same name, and Butler then led everyone into the back room for the final song, which he performed atop the bar holding his guitar. Although Chassagne pointed out to Butler that she needed to play the piano for the song, Everything Now‘s “We Don’t Deserve Love,” he waved it off with some version of, “F— it!” and she ended up improvising by using a piece of silverware to play wine glasses and a wine bottle instead. As she said earlier in the evening, “My way of doing things is very DIY — it’s just like: Do. It. Yourself.”
For more information on KANPE, visit the website here.