Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Meet the Piano

One of the most popular musical instruments in the world, the piano is often found in classrooms and homes. Despite its formidable size (a piano from 1720 is pictured above) and often high cost, the instrument remains one of the most familiar today. It is therefore an obvious selection for our HillTop Records blog series on instruments. Its ubiquitous sound and versatility make it a good choice for solo performances or ensemble use. The piano is especially loved in the worlds of classical and chamber music. However, it is also often used as an aid to composing and rehearsal. Most everyone knows what a piano looks like--but not everyone understands exactly how it works, or knows just where the famous instrument comes from.

The word "piano" is actually short for "pianoforte," which derives from the original Italian name. Traditionally, the words "piano" and "forte" mean "soft" and "loud," and so the name seems appropriate for the versatile instrument. The piano is, of course, played by means of a keyboard. When a key on the keyboard is pressed, a felt-covered hammer strikes the piano's steel strings and causes them to vibrate. The hammers rebound, allowing the strings to continue vibrating at their resonant frequency. These vibrations are transmitted through a bridge to a sounding board. When the key is released, a damper stops the string's vibration. The pianist playing the instrument can control the inertia with which the hammers hit the strings, thus producing different notes at different dynamic levels.

Early attempts at creating a successful keyboard instrument were made centuries ago. During the Middle Ages, inventors experimented with stringed keyboards that featured struck strings. By the 17th century, the clavichord (wherein the strings are struck by tangents) and the harpsichord (whose strings are plucked by quills) were being used frequently. Manufacturers spent centuries figuring out the most effective ways to construct the harpsichord's case, soundboard, bridge and keyboard. The eventual result was the earliest piano, invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, Italy. The official "Keeper of the Instruments," employed by the Medici family, Cristofori was an expert maker of harpsichords and other stringed instruments. While the actual date of the first piano is unknown, three original Cristofori pianos from the 1720's (one is pictured above) remain in existence today. They all feature the instrument's signature black and white keys, which were supposedly suggested by a friend of the family named Sebastian LeBlanc.

Gottfried Silbermann, an organ builder in the 1700's, took an interest in the early pianos and began to make them himself. He is credited with inventing the forerunner of the modern damper pedal, which he showed to Johann Sebastian Bach. As the story goes, Bach was originally unimpressed by the piano; he did not come around until years later. Throughout the late 18th century, piano-making flourished across Europe. In particular, Viennese-style pianos (with wood frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers) grew in popularity--so much so that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing concertos and sonatas for them. The early piano that inspired Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven was, however, quite different from the one we use today. Even the music of the Romantics (ie. Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms) was written for an instrument that is no longer around. The early piano was tweaked and improved so many times over the years that its modern incarnations appear to be distant relatives.

In general, there are two basic configurations of the modern piano: the grand piano and the upright piano. The concert grand piano and its smaller version, the baby grand, feature a horizontal frame and strings. The concert grand's large size and shape allow the octave "stretch" to retain harmonic balance, creating a pure sound and producing virtually beatless perfect fifths. The upright piano is, meanwhile, more compact because its frame and strings are vertical. Its hammers move horizontally and return to their resting position via springs that are unfortunately prone to wear and tear. However, its compact size and lower cost make the upright piano more suitable for domestic use.

Other types of modern pianos do exist, but they are less common than the grand or upright. The player piano, invented by Henri Fourneaux in 1863, plays itself from a piano roll without the need for a pianist; it is sometimes used for entertainment in department stores and restaurants. A silent piano has the option of silencing the strings, and it was designed for private silent practice. The toy piano, the transposing piano, the prepared piano and the electric piano also give the pianist ways to change the sound. No matter the type of modern piano, however, one thing almost always remains constant: the keyboard consisting of 36 black keys and 52 white keys for a total of 88 keys. Older pianos often have only 85 keys; however, it is unusual to find a modern version that has more or less than 88. If you do, it is probably a toy piano (Schoenhut has created grands and uprights with 44 or 49 keys) or a "gig" piano (typically with 65 keys) specially designed for traveling musicians. Recently, the Stuart and Sons company developed an extended-range piano with the first-ever 102-key keyboard.

Major manufacturers of the piano include Baldwin, Steinway & Sons, Yamaha and Broadwood. The instrument has become a crucial component to Western classical music, jazz, and more complex genres. Film and TV scores typically feature the piano, and a large number of composers are proficient pianists. The piano is one of the most popular instruments for private household ownership, and it remains at the forefront of popular consciousness--so much so that the act of playing the piano has several nicknames. Whether or not you enjoy "tickling the ivories" yourself, you probably know someone who does--and you would most likely recognize the distinct sound immediately. Here at HillTop Records, we love the piano and are proud to feature it in our recordings.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What's Happening In Music In: Minneapolis/Saint Paul

Best known for its friendly folks and intimidating winter weather, Minnesota also boasts a surprisingly rich--and historic--music scene. It dates all the way to the land's first inhabitants--Native Americans who incorporated song and chant into their daily lives. European fur-traders and other immigrants brought with them their own traditions, and the music of Minnesota has since dramatically evolved. French, Scandinavian, Celtic and and German influences are still evident. Today, the music scene includes everything from modern folk to jazz to rock, and there is an especially large radio industry. As the government and cultural capital of the state, the Twin Cities of Minnesota (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) comprise the primary hub for music--and so together, they are the next stop on our HillTop Records tour of American music scenes!

Ethnic music (especially European) laid the groundwork for the Twin Cities' music scene. However, many American genres have definitely left their mark. Gospel, blues and jazz are important parts of the local culture--and in the 1980's, Minneapolis experienced a huge surge in pop music. This is when the city launched the career of one of the greatest American pop stars of all time: Minneapolis native, Prince. Other famous musicians who got their start in the Twin Cities include the members of alternative rock bands The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, and hip hop artists like Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Minnesota was also the birthplace of Bob Dylan, The Andrews Sisters and other legends who got their first start there but soon left for larger markets.

One thing that has continued to propel the music scene of the Twin Cities is its impressive radio network. The state is actually home to the largest public radio network (Independent Public Radio, or IPR) in the country; it provides classical, folk, college and other music programs regionally and throughout the nation on stations like KAXE, KUOM (Radio K) and WTIP. An excellent example of Minnesota's love of radio is A Prairie Home Companion, usually broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul. The nationally loved variety program is popular for its folk music and tongue-in-cheek storytelling, and it became so well known that it inspired a 2006 film by the same name.

Another key contributor to the area's rich music scene is--surprisingly enough--its public school system. According to Minnesota law, all public schools are required to provide at least three courses in the arts (dance, music, theater and/or visual arts.) Marching bands and choruses are popular outlets for kids, and specialty schools like the Perpich Center for Arts Education and the MacPhail Center for Music thrive. Also coinciding with the state's obvious dedication to music education, there are a great number of youth-oriented concert venues. The Apple Valley Teen Center, the Depot Coffee House and the Enigma Teen Center are great options for younger people living in or looking to visit the Twin Cities.

There are also a great number of recording studios in the area. The first in the state was Kay Bank, and the first-ever digital recording studio was Sound 80, founded in Minneapolis in 1969. Today, the latter is Orfield Labs' anechoic chamber--and also the quietest place on Earth, according to the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records. The Twin/Tone record label, Prince's Paisley Park Studios (Madonna, Boy George and Paula Abdul all recorded there) and successful independent record stores like Treehouse Records, Cheapo and the Electric Fetus have also helped to shape the modern music scene of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

To experience the best of Minnesota's music scene, check the event calendars of the major cities' most important venues. These include the Target Center and First Avenue (famous for being the site of one of Prince's first gigs) in Minneapolis and the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul. Another large concert hall that routinely showcases contemporary acts is the Northrop Auditorium on the main campus of the University of Minnesota. The school is known to host an annual concert series called "Lend a Hand, Hear the Band" that entitles every student who completes at least 10 hours of community service to free tickets.

Of course, which venues you choose to frequent will depend on your musical preference. If you like classical music, for example, you will have many options in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The 2,500-seat Orchestra Hall, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and the Historic Orpheum Theatre are all popular. The now-defunct Pence Opera House also remains a major cultural landmark in Minneapolis. You should also consider taking in a performance by the Minnesota Orchestra or the Minnesota Opera. On the other hand, other genres are equally easy to find throughout the area. The Twin Cities hosts plenty of rock, blues, hip hop, gospel and jazz concerts. For a comprehensive calendar of concerts throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul, check out City Pages--and be sure to check back here with us at HillTop Records for information on other exciting events happening around the country!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Great American Songwriters: Sean "Diddy" Combs

Since being born as Sean John Combs in 1969, this American artist has gone by many names: Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy. The first nickname was given to him in childhood, when he would supposedly "huff and puff" when he got upset. The others evolved at different stages in his musical career--a career that is quite fascinating to us here at HillTop Records. Unlike other songwriters featured in our "Great American Songwriters" series, Combs did not start off as a musician. He chose an unconventional path through the music industry--and that path led him straight to the top. To this day, he continues to be one of the most successful and prolific hip hop artists in America.

After being born and raised in Harlem, New York, Combs attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. There he discovered an aptitude for marketing, and he built a solid reputation as a party and concert promoter. He landed an internship with Uptown Records back in New York and, for a while, commuted between the two cities. Eventually, as his career started to take off, he left school to focus full-time on work. While the move proved to be an important stepping stone for Combs, his "big break" didn't actually happen until he was fired from Uptown in 1993. With his sudden free time and solid industry connections, Combs launched his own label: Bad Boy Records. Among his first clients: Craig Mack, The Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans, Jodeci, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim and Aretha Franklin. Needless to say, the record company saw immediate success.

First and foremost a businessman, Combs did not branch out into the artistic side of the music industry until he was in his late 20's. He recorded his first commercial album as a rapper in '97 as Puff Daddy. The album, No Way Out, won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album. His first hit single, "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," spent six weeks in the Billboard Hot 100's #1 spot. His second single, "I'll Be Missing You" (written in honor of his late friend, The Notorious B.I.G.) was equally successful. And so it seemed that Combs was just as talented a songwriter and performer as he was a businessman.

In 2001, "Puff Daddy" became "P. Diddy." The name change signified a turning point for the rap artist, who was quickly building momentum and diversifying his empire. Along with continuing to produce chart-topping albums, Combs took some giant steps in his artistic career. He made his first appearance as an actor in the critically-acclaimed Monster's Ball, recorded a (never released) gospel album called Thank You, and collaborated with a number of famous artists. He worked with David Bowie, Britney Spears and 'N Sync before launching his own reality TV show for MTV. He also became very involved in charity work during that time; in particular, he headed the "Vote or Die" campaign for the 2004 Presidential Election that targeted young people and encouraged new voters.

The final (at least, for now) name change took place in 2005. In August of that year, "Diddy" officially announced on the Today show that he was dropping the "P" from his stage name because it "was getting between me and my fans." He continued to produce music, act in films and on Broadway, and launch new business ventures (including a successful clothing line.) In 2005, he hosted the MTV Video Music Awards and was named one of the "100 Most Influential People of 2005" by TIME magazine. However, despite all of these major career highlights, Diddy still continues to be most famous for his songs.

In 2006, Diddy released a new album: Press Play, under his own Bad Boy Entertainment label. The track list featured guest appearances by Christina Aguilera, Nas, Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, and other big celebrities from the worlds of hip hop and pop. The first single, "Come To Me," was a collaboration with Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls. The album reached the #1 spot its first week in the charts, proving once again that Combs knows how to give audiences what they want. Combs has also proven time and time again that while he likes to be in charge, he works best as part of a group. Rarely does he release a song that does not feature a guest artist, and he is even a member of two music groups. One is a rap "supergroup" called The Dream Team. Along with Diddy himself, The Dream Team consists of DJ Khaled, Fat Joe, Rick Ross, Red Café, Busta Rhymes and Fabolous.

The other musical group that Diddy is currently a part of is the newly formed Diddy-Dirty Money. The three-person group (the other two members are Dawn Richard of Danity Kane fame and singer/songwriter Kalenna Harper) are signed with Combs' Bad Boy Records. They dropped their freshman album, Last Train To Paris, just last month--and reviews are still pouring in. The highly conceptual album is a departure for Diddy, and the results have been met with mixed reactions. Combs calls Diddy-Dirty Money "a look, a sound, a movement, [and] a crew" and refutes rumors that the name implies something negative or illegal. He says of the group's first album: "I wanted to do something refreshing, something unique, something forward for myself as an artist...I wanted to tell a love story [but] I couldn't just tell the male’s point of view." Allmusic says that the project "mashes together Italo-disco, pop-rap, tech-house, and the sound of Bad Boy in its prime".

It is still too early to tell whether or not this new venture will prove to be successful for Sean "Diddy" Combs. However, judging by the life of his career thus far, it is probably safe to say that Diddy-Dirty Money will do well. And even if the group doesn't, Diddy himself should be just fine. He's already accomplished an astonishing number of things--both within the world of music and outside of it. He has promoted everything from perfume to vodka, opened a chain of restaurants, appeared numerous times on the big and small screen, performed live, recorded and produced albums, designed clothing (everything from high-end suits to the green alternate jersey for the Dallas Mavericks) and donated sizable amounts to several important charities. Even back in 2002, he was featured on Fortune magazine's "40 Richest People Under 40" list. And about a year ago, Combs publicly announced to CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he plans to open a business school in New York--one "that’s known for building leaders." We at HillTop Records definitely agree that he's qualified to do so.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The First Music Festivals of 2011!

We got so busy with the holidays over here at HillTop Records, that we almost forgot to update you on upcoming music festivals! There wasn't much happening in the days right after the holiday season; however, there are a number of great events to look forward to now. No matter which part of the country you live in, you can end the first month of the new year with a great musical celebration. Here are our picks for the best music festivals and events in the second half of January:

- The Barbershop Cabaret (1/14/2011 - 1/15/2011) in Seaside, Oregon offers two full days of championship vocal entertainment. On Friday, you can expect to enjoy a club-style format. Saturday's highlight, meanwhile, is an impressive display of all of the quartets singing harmony together.

- Also in Oregon, the RiverCity Bluegrass Festival (1/14/2011 - 1/16/2011) is set to take over multiple stages at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. It will fill two and a half days with workshops, jams and concerts.

- The Real Music Concert Series at Busch Gardens (1/19/2011 - 3/26/2011) in Tampa, Florida takes advantage of the state's warm winter weather by featuring a fantastic series of concert events. The live music and theatrical performances add to the theme park's already festive atmosphere.

- The Florence Winter Folk Festival (1/21/2011 - 1/23/2011) in Florence, Oregon honors more than a musical genre. It celebrates an entire lifestyle through music, arts, crafts, food and demonstrations, jam sessions and workshops. The two-day event is sure to offer fun for the whole family.

- For one day only, Bluegrass in the Park (1/22/2011) livens up Yuma, Arizona. The line-up includes popular traditionalists like Don Rigsby & Midnight Call, The Chapman's, Midnight Flight, and Lonesome Otis. To make the most of the exciting event, consider camping overnight around the stages at West Wetlands Park.

- A beloved pastime for college students and other residents, the Clark College Jazz Festival (1/27/2011 - 1/29/2011) is returning to the Vancouver, Washington campus. For almost 50 years, the historic event has been one of the largest jazz festivals in Southwest Washington. It is known to attract over 60 high school vocal and instrumental jazz ensembles.

- The 36th Annual Cloverdale Old Time Fiddle Contest and Festival (1/29/2011 - 1/30/2011) in Cloverdale, California will offer two days of toe-tapping music, jamming and hand-made crafts. It is a great way to experience the local culture--and especially the musical traditions that have been passed down for generations.

- Although it mostly takes place in February, the first day of the Arizona Musicfest (1/31/2011 - 2/27/2011) in Carefree, Arizona is actually the last day of this month. The 20th Anniversary Celebration will kick it up a notch by featuring everything from jazz to classical and even Broadway. Traditional chamber music, inspiring instrumentals, romantic cabaret--this much anticipated event has something for everyone.

For more information on upcoming music festivals and concerts, check out Festivals.com. Also be sure to keep in touch with us here at HillTop Records, as we will always do our best to keep you up-to-date!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Medecins Sans Frontieres" in Haiti

It has now officially been a year since a horrific 7.0 earthquake devastated the island nation of Haiti. To commemorate the sad anniversary, HillTop Records has sent a donation to Doctors Without Borders (or, in Haiti, Medecins Sans Frontieres.) The global organization has been stationed in Haiti since the catastrophic quake, providing medical care to the residents whose health and livelihoods were impacted. Doctors Without Borders has led the largest humanitarian aid deployment in the world, and they have helped to improve the living conditions of many Haitians. However, despite their progress, there is still a lot of work to be done. And over the past few months, Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has been battling a new (and very dangerous) enemy in Haiti: a nationwide cholera outbreak.

While access to healthcare has certainly improved in Haiti over the past year, the rapid spread of cholera is proving to be a formidable force. The epidemic greatly limits the effectiveness of the international aid system, and every step forward is followed by a step back. MSF is working around-the-clock to help Haiti, but the aftermath of the earthquake and the cholera epidemic combined is the largest disaster in the organization's history. Their response team needs your help.

To learn more about what is being done in Haiti, check out Doctors Without Borders' official website. You can read the latest reports, view current images, and even donate directly to the cause. You can also find other ways to donate by reading our previous blog posts on Haiti. We hope that you will join us here at HillTop Records in doing what we can to help rebuild the country of Haiti.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What's Happening In Music In: St. Louis

Once upon a time, W. C. Handy stood on the banks of the Mississippi River in the heart of St. Louis and wrote a song. That song, inspired by the magnificent beauty of the waterfront and the city itself, was called "The St. Louis Blues"--and it went on to become one of the most recorded songs in the world. This is only one of many stories about the soulful American city--an obvious stop on our HillTop Records tour of great music scenes. From award-winning orchestras to underground punk rock bands, this Missouri city has a lot to offer in terms of music.

Many genres have had their moment in St. Louis. Most recently, the city has become well-known for its thriving rap and hip hop scene. In fact, it is one of the biggest hubs for Midwest hip hop. Mainstream artists like the St. Lunatics, Chingy, Nelly and J-Kwon are all from St. Louis. They and others have helped put the city on the map and now it is often compared to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, New York City and other destinations known for having large urban music scenes. In addition, St. Louis has a wealth of successful producers and deejays--and it even spawned the first national Christian hip hop artist from the Midwest! FLAME, on the scene since 2004, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Gospel Rap/Rock Album of the Year. At the same time, St. Louis' underground/garage rock bands are currently getting a lot of attention. The Vultures, The Trip Daddys and The Gentleman Callers are among the local indie acts that have recently gained momentum across the country.

To really understand St. Louis' rich and diverse music scene, however, you need to learn a bit of its equally intriguing history. This goes back to the time of the 1904 World's Fair, when W. C. Handy and his contemporaries provided the soundtrack to the local counterculture. At the time, ragtime was all the rage--thanks in part to Scott Joplin (most famous for writing "The Entertainer.") Nowadays, Joplin's house is open for daily tours and is protected as a Missouri State Historic Landmark. In his heyday, the musician helped pave the way for the jazz and blues legends who left their marks on St. Louis and the entire country. These headliners included Josephine Baker, Jimmy Forrest, Bennie Smith, Henry Townsend, Oliver Sain, Red McKenzie, Clark Terry, Fontella Bass and the most famous of all: the immortal Miles Davis.

Jazz (greatly influenced by New Orleans and the Mississippi delta region) and the city's signature St. Louis blues are still very prevalent today. However, in the 1940's and '50's, these genres were accompanied by another: R&B. A combination of bluesy notes and lively dance beats, the new sound quickly swept the country. However, it originated in the dance clubs of Memphis and St. Louis. To fill the void left by the end of the Big Band jazz and swing era, R&B artists like Ike and Tina Turner stepped onto the scene. They are only a couple of the many prominent R&B names from the St. Louis area. The city, still a predominate stop along the "Chitlin Circuit," has given us a long list of notable musicians: Willie King, Ann Peebles, Screamin' Joe Neal, etc.

Another historic time for St. Louis music occurred from 1957 to 1967. This was the decade of the city's Gaslight Square, now home to a residential development. Back then, the happening entertainment district attracted the likes of Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand. The hip, bohemian neighborhood was for a time even more notorious than Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Dozens of trendy restaurants and concert halls were packed nightly and the sounds of jazz, R&B, dixieland, Irish dancing and spoken word poetry filled the air. Although the Gaslight Square was pretty much extinct by 1970, its legacy lives on in the heartfelt music scene of St. Louis.

These days, the city offers a great variety of musical styles. Locals and visitors who appreciate country or alt-country should check out local bands like The Bottle Rockets and Uncle Tupelo. Meanwhile, anyone who likes early rock and roll should try to get themselves to a Chuck Berry concert. The world-famous singer/guitarist calls St. Louis home and still makes a point to return to the city several times a year. Another institution is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Founded back in 1880, it is the second oldest orchestra in the United States. Today, its concerts can be enjoyed at Powell Symphony Hall on North Grand Boulevard--the permanent home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra since 1968. The orchestra is not only loved by Missouri locals; in fact, it has earned quite a bit of national fame. Over the years, it has been honored with six Grammy Awards and fifty-six nominations.

Along with Powell Hall, St. Louis offers a handful of incredible live music venues. Jazz At the Bistro is a must-see for visitors, as is the Sheldon Concert Hall. The latter has been called the "Carnegie Hall of St. Louis" and it features the best in jazz, folk, and classical music. Off Broadway is another popular landmark; it is famous for its fantastic acoustics and diversity (everything from bluegrass to indie-rock can be heard here.) The Pageant routinely hosts national rock and pop acts on tour, and The Muny is the oldest and largest outdoor musical theater in America. It stays quite crowded throughout the warm summer months--especially since the top several rows of the venue are always free!

If you are planning to visit St. Louis during the summer, you should also consider checking out the city's Opera Festival. It is held every May and June at the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves. Another major event held in St. Louis each year is the Whitaker Music Festival. The series includes everything from jazz to folk-rock, showcased on Wednesday evenings in the summer at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Union Avenue Opera, the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus, and the Young Catholic Musicians are other favorites among those who like classical music. For more information on local bands and upcoming concerts, check out the music page of the Riverfront Times. We'll also do our best to keep you abreast of what's happening in St. Louis and other cities here on our HillTop Records blog!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Haiti: An Update

Back in July, we wrote a blog about the then-current status of Haiti and what our songwriters and readers could do to help the people there. It was, at the time, six months after a devastating earthquake had left the country (most notably its capital city, Port-au-Prince) in ruins and despair. Another six months have now passed since the catastrophic event, so we thought it a suitable time to pass along another update.

We've celebrated the rich culture and music of Haiti here on our HillTop Records blog. However, there is another side to this small tropical nation--one that is far less happy and festive. The country has a long history of political corruption and turmoil, and it has only gotten worse since the most recent natural disaster. In late November and early December of 2010, Haiti held a series of elections that resulted in great controversy. The people are still in an uproar over the outcome. Of course, here in the United States, we are limited in what we can do to help the political landscape of Haiti. However, we can definitely continue to help in the re-building of its infrastructure and agriculture. Roughly a year after the earthquake, there is still a lot of work to do.

So, what exactly has the United States done to help with the Haiti relief effort? Quite a bit, actually. While humanitarian aid has poured into Haiti from around the world, the U.S. continues to be among the largest single donors. As a country, we have already spent over $900 million--and committed to another $1.15 billion. What's more, at a conference held in New York last March, donors pledged a total of $5.3 billion (to be distributed to Haiti over the following 18 months.) Although these numbers may sound astrological, they are actually not nearly enough to rebuild a shattered country. The Inter-American Development Bank conducted a study soon after the disaster to estimate its total cost. They reported that it caused between $7.2 billion and $13.2 billion in damages, but those numbers were based on a death toll of 200,000-250,000. After the study, that toll was revised by Haiti's president to be upwards of 300,000.

Haiti was already among the poorest and least developed in the world before the earthquake hit. Today, the level of poverty is nearly impossible to comprehend--and actual reconstruction has barely even begun. More than a million displaced Haitians still live in tents and under tarpaulins. A recent cholera outbreak further worsened the health and morale of the population. Another major cause for concern is the alarming state of the country's educational system. Hundreds of teachers and thousands of students lost their lives in the quake. More than 3,000 school buildings were relegated to mere rubble, and some local schools may never reopen. Vast numbers of Haitian children, many left homeless and orphaned, are currently struggling to find menial jobs and somehow support themselves.

The facts are heartbreaking. So, what can we as individuals do to help? Well, the same organizations that we mentioned in our previous blog are still working around-the-clock to help Haiti. The Huffington Post's Causecast Store, Music for Relief and our own HillTop Records GRACE CD's are available to consumers. You can also send money directly to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, the American Red Cross (to whom we at HillTop Records have personally donated) or the Mercy Corps Haiti Earthquake Fund.

Mercy Corps has been especially innovative in their efforts to evenly distribute funds. They have found a surprisingly high-tech way to put grocery money into the hands of those who need it--via cell phone! Instead of handing out bags of rice or food vouchers the old-fashioned way, a government-financed program is giving cell phones to local merchants and residents of St.-Marc (a remote Haitian town) who have taken in earthquake survivors. Each month, the folks at Mercy Corps deposit a set amount of money into each cell phone that can then be used to purchase corn flour, beans, cooking oil, etc. With the click of a button, the transaction is made--and a huge financial problem (the lack of access that the world's poor typically have to bank accounts) is solved! Just as modern technology is revolutionizing the music industry, it is making great leaps in other areas. This progress shows just what is possible, and it should give us hope for the future.

Of course, we still have a very long way to go--and the aforementioned cholera outbreak (caused by atrocious sanitation and a lack of potable water) is proving to be a formidable setback. The epidemic took 1,700 lives in only the first month (last November) and officials at the Pan American Health Organization estimate that as many as 400,000 Haitians may suffer from cholera in the next year. There are ways to drastically reduce these numbers (for example, a sanitation aid group called SOIL has provided 300 dry composting toilets to Haiti to improve health conditions and the country's agricultural production) but they all cost time, effort and money. The country desperately needs doctors, teachers, aid workers, and business owners who can create jobs--and the resources to get them there. So please--if you feel so compelled--give what you can to the organizations that most appeal to you. For a quick, easy and fun way to donate money to Haiti, simply click on the link on our official website and download a song written by one of our HillTop Records songwriters for $1.99. You'll get a great original song--and Haiti will get a $1 of the proceeds. You can also donate directly to Feed The Children through our website.