A final song
Austin nonprofit Swan Songs offers concerts to people who are terminally ill
Carlos Rumbaut is playing the soundtrack of another man’s life.
As the Austin musician croons the beloved Cuban anthem, “Guantanamera,” 81-year-old Raciel Monert claps his hands and sings along to every word.
It has not been an easy few months for Monert, who has Alzheimer's, is in hospice care and frequently forgets family members' names, but during this concert organized by the nonprofit Swan Songs, the dozen loved ones surrounding him are again getting a glimpse of the strength and passion that lies within their patriarch.
“Sometimes when I go to his apartment, I can hear him singing the old songs,” said Monert’s granddaughter Amelia Arman, 31, who hosted the recent concert at her Manor home. “This is such a good idea. I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything like this.”
Swan Songs was established by Austin musician Christine Albert after she played a home concert for a fan who suffered a brain aneurysm.
“(His wife) invited his colleagues and friends and family members so they could share the music with him and have something to focus on besides the illness,” she said. “I was struck by how profound it was.”
Since becoming a 501c3 nonprofit in 2005, Swan Songs has organized more than 1,000 concerts for terminally ill Central Texans. Typically, a family requests songs by an artist such as Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan or a style such as folk, mariachi or even heavy metal. Swan Songs then matches a local musician who plays that style with the family. Artists including Bob Schneider, Guy Forsyth and Carolyn Wonderland have performed Swan Songs concerts.
“Each concert is completely unique,” Albert said. “Sometimes it’s one on one, singing to someone hours before they die. The vibe of that concert is very different than someone who is in a non-curative phase of treatment but is fairly strong. It’s usually not a sad, somber thing. It can be very joyful.”
Monert is originally from Cuba and worked two jobs as a cobbler to support his family before retiring and moving to Austin in 2008.
“He worked all his life to make shoes,” Arman said, adding that he made her first shoes, a pair of white sandals. “His hands are really strong, even now. He’s such a strong person. But every day he’s losing his memory a little more.”
For musician Rumbaut, 68, also from Cuba, performing for Monert hit home. His own father was in hospice care before he died.
“I come as a musician who wants to make a heart connection,” Rumbaut said. “As a human being, I can actually be reaching across whatever problems he’s having and connect and say, ‘Hey, I’m here, and you’re there, and we both remember this music.’ That’s really rewarding.”
Once the concert ended, Monert continued to sing to himself as his wife, Flor Aida Arredondo, dished up plates of ensalada fria, a Cuban pasta salad.
“It’s like having a celebration of life before somebody passes,” said Denise Rodgers, chaplain of Serenity Hospice, who helped arrange the concert. “Sometimes it’s the last time they break bread together.”
Most Swan Songs participants skew older, but Albert has arranged concerts for children, too. Families never pay, but musicians are given a $125 honorarium per performance by Swan Songs.
For Albert, who found herself singing to her own mother before she died in October, music will always have healing powers.
“Music transcends language and conversation and linear thoughts," Albert said. “If music has been important in their life, it connects the recipient who is nearing the end of their life with something that is part of who they are."
About Swan Songs
Swan Songs is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that organizes private concerts for individuals with terminal illnesses or who are nearing the end of life. Learn more at swansongs.org.