Media Stories / October 2020

Harmony RINGS TRUE

SARA WASSERMAN’S JOURNEY TO HAITI
By Dennis Strazulo

In the theatrical continuum of life, how does a 13-year-old girl follow up the act of rock-and-roll legend Lou Reed singing “Happy Birthday” to her, adorned with a Belgian Chocolate cake presented by her father – on a tour bus in Belgium? With determination, humility, and grace Sara Wasserman has done so by giving back. Specifically, and right on point, by giving music to children. Sara had no idea of the rarefied air in which she existed at the time of that birthday celebration over 25 years ago; or of Reed’s celebrity, or that of her late father, virtuoso bass player, Rob Wasserman. But she does now and is devoted to sharing the unique joy and power of music with disadvantaged children to help them build, in her words, “the lives they deserve.”

Photos by Laura Reoch
September-Days Photography

The birthday cake was the doing of her dad, who at the time was touring with Reed while also enjoying acclaim as a Grammy Award winning solo artist and bass player alongside former Grateful Dead member, Bob Weir, in RatDog, the band they co-founded. Such exposure to the music scene marked much of Sara’s childhood.

Today, Sara Wasserman works with purpose alongside her incredible team in the US and Haiti as the Founder and Executive Director of Music Heals International (MHI), a non-profit dedicated to bringing music education to children in Haiti and globally. Using music to inspire achievement, resilience, and creativity, MHI brings joy and healing to children deeply familiar with hardship and uncertainty. Since launching its flagship Haitian program in 2014, MHI has touched over 800 children’s lives. (See our Non-Profit Spotlight, p.xx).  As rewarding as the journey has been so far, Sara’s work is just beginning.

Her voyage from an only child touring with rock stars while budding as a notable artist in her own right, to visionary leader of MHI is as unique as developing a music program for children in one of the world’s poorest countries to help them engage, achieve and thrive. Like so many intriguing stories involving music, both Sara’s history and MHI’s are deeply rooted in Mill Valley!

Rob Wasserman married Sara’s mother, Clare Wasserman, when the couple were in their early twenties. They raised their daughter in Mill Valley as Rob attended school at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Clare worked producing some of the first benefits for Greenpeace and concerts in California prisons, while also running a San Francisco music project with legendary rock music promoter, Bill Graham. Sara talks about falling asleep as a young child listening to her dad practice in his studio above her bedroom. She shyly recounts Graham’s playful critique of her singing voice that greeted callers on the family answering machine. She attended Marin Horizon, then temporarily defected from Mill Valley in high school, attending Redwood. During those years between, her experiences around rock icons were plentiful. She essentially grew up with Reed, so his birthday serenade was not something she understood as anything unique. She recalls hiding under tables as a child at the old Sweetwater Music Hall as her father played. She met Weir when she was 7, and on another birthday accompanied her dad to the studio where they were joined by Jerry Garcia, Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby, who were recording music for Levi’s commercials.

While taking time with us to recount these improbable memories, Sara emphasized her fondness for Mill Valley, her appreciation for growing up there, and her continuing connection with the community. She has warm recollections of hanging out at Old Mill Park, walking to town with her friends, and her dad taking her to the Mill Valley Market for a coveted, giant butter cookie covered with sprinkles. She also fell in love with Stinson Beach and reminisces about countless jaunts there with her dad creating special moments. These experiences were so impactful she can think of no better place to raise her two-year old daughter and light of her life, Gia, while discovering the magic of living in Mill Valley as a parent.

It is that same magic, perhaps, that caused her chance meeting in Mill Valley with family friend Sean Penn in 2012. Penn was set to return to Haiti, where he had been providing relief to Haitian citizens ravaged by the earthquake two years prior, killing some 230,000 [AO2] people and completely upending their lives and the country. To undertake this effort Penn co-founded J/P HRO, now known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), which is currently coordinating COVID -19 testing sites across the United States. Sara recalls Penn inviting her to join him on this mission, though wryly admits she may have invited herself. Either way, it was the start of something she never imagined. She invited Lukas Nelson to join her, a long-time friend and fellow offspring of a musical father. Their experience in Haiti changed her life.

Sara and Nelson had planned a trip where they would teach music to children. They handed out guitars and passed on their skills, engaging with eager students who, despite having every reason to feel hopeless, had smiles on their faces and expressed joy in making music, something deeply cultural that touched their souls. Sara was so enamored by the children, their verve for learning and their musical acumen despite a lack of formal training, she knew this trip was not going to be her last. “How can we not continue to do this”, she thought. So, she did, returning to Haiti every two months for five years. She was driven by a greater power and never once thought of stopping. Instead, she continued to bond with the children and learn about Haitian culture, allaying any fears she had when first embarking on the mission. She was motivated by her heart and a drive to give back the very gift of music that so graced her life. “You don’t plan things of this magnitude, “she says. “The creation of MHI was very organic.” In time, she started to see the concept of music as healing evolve before her eyes.

It’s one thing to tag along with friends in your celebrity circle en route to contribute to a noble cause; but where did Sara develop the ambition, the laser focus, and the courage to make MHI happen? It seems there was a plan all along. The music influence is obvious. But it runs deeper than that with Sara. Although she innocently meandered through an upbringing in the casual company of people who might otherwise cause people to be starstruck, it wasn’t long before Sara started to recognize the fuel that empowers talented and driven people, starting with her father. She can’t help but wear her love and admiration for her dad on her sleeve. She refers to him as “the best bass player on the planet” without apology. But it was the experience of watching him perform and her ability to recognize the genesis of that talent and how it was channeled, that taught and influenced her.

Rob Wasserman was very shy. “If he didn’t’ know you, you’d be lucky to get a word or two out of him”, says Sara. But on stage, she noticed he closed his eyes and something else took over. “It was a release of everything that was inside of him. He was in an element that was at a very different level, channeling something much bigger.” And he did it with modesty, sometimes asking her how he did after wowing an audience with an incredible bass solo. “He truly did not know his own genius”, Sara told us. It may be that Sara has yet to appreciate her own genius. Like her dad, it’s easy to surmise something had taken her over as she pressed on.

The influence of her mother is equally striking. In fact, another self-described “kid” of the Bay Area music scene, Merl Saunders, Jr. (son of the incomparable keyboard player, Merl Saunders who famously collaborated with Garcia as part of his robust music career) says deftly it wasn’t just her dad influencing Sara. “Rob was the icing on the cake”, Saunders, Jr. recalled, “but the cake was Clare.” Unlike the shy Rob, Sara describes her mother as nothing short of “fiery.” They had opposite temperaments, but according to Sara, that is what made things work for her parents. “If it wasn’t for my mom”, who managed Rob’s career, “my dad might have been playing in hotels!” “I think I was more like my dad when I was younger”, she pondered, recalling their similar reticent personalities, “but I now see myself emulating my mom.” Perhaps she was recounting her fundraising efforts, a major element of Sara’s mission to keep MHI thriving. Clare knew a bit about fundraising, even at the early stages of her yet-to-be-defined career. Sara tells the story of her parents travelling through Europe as teenagers. “My dad would play street music and mom would pass a hat around”. “My mom was more direct and knew exactly what she wanted”, she said proudly, and it’s easy to see Sara following suit.

Those years being raised by such amazing parents are never lost on Sara. “I always think about my childhood,” she said. She described her parents as “super chill” saying “they never stressed about anything.” Although she was shy as a child, she was also adventurous. “When I was 5-years old, while at Old Mill Park I concocted a plan to steal away a couple of schoolmates and walk them back to my house. When we got there, my dad opened the door and was quite surprised, but he didn’t freak out. He calmly walked us back to the park. That was very typical of my dad.”

The calming influence had a positive effect on Sara and allowed her to be creative without judgment. Not surprisingly, Sara’s interests and passion lay in the arts. She worked to enhance her singing skills, taking voice lessons from the time she was 10. As a high school senior, perhaps on a quest to do something a bit different, she applied to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York without telling her parents for fear she would not get in. But she was accepted! The cautious but once-again intrepid Sara was off to New York, where she spent 10 joyous years in a city she still loves, toying with acting but not letting go of the musical gift she had quietly developed over the years.

Meanwhile, it appears the universe thought having the best bass player on the planet and a producer as parents was not enough to pave the way for her incredible journey. Alas, in her path appeared Dan Hicks, (better known to some for his band, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks), another famed musician who adopted Mill Valley as his home – and Sara as his step-daughter when he and Clare married in 1997. Rob and Clare ended their marriage several years before Sara went to New York, so Hicks was around the family a lot before that. As she grew older, it was music that connected her with Hicks. Despite the enticement of acting, music never left her heart, and Sara embarked on her own musical journey- inspired by both her adoring father and Hicks but made possible by her own talent.

Sara was more than worthy of sharing the stage with her musical influences. She made her debut singing a song co-written by her father and Jim Capaldi of Traffic fame while sitting in with RatDog at the Shoreline Amphitheater, wowing the crowd as a 17-year old. From there, very deliberately and skillfully, she embarked on recording her own album, Solid Ground, which was released in 2009 and included collaborations with Aaron Neville, Reed, Christian McBride and her father, drawing reviews such as “soul stirring” and “refreshingly creative” and causing Music Connection magazine to include her in its top ten new artists.

Alongside an unmistakable passion for music, something else was burning inside Sara – her love for children and her desire to give to those who have not shared her fortune. In 2007, she joined the Board of Directors of Casa di Milagros, an orphanage in Peru where abandoned children are cared for and raised as a family. She made three trips to Peru and fell in love with the kids. A passion was brewing, indeed!

When Sara returned to Mill Valley from New York, in part to promote her album, things began to shift. Despite her success and opportunities as a singer, she had to decide if she wanted to continue with the rigors of touring. It was during this time of reflection she had the chance meeting with Penn and her new path was set. Music. Children. Helping those less fortunate. Giving back. The equation became clearer by the day. Her work expanding MHI since its launch in 2014 has been tireless. The money gained from an inaugural fundraiser with Michael Franti was put to excellent use but evaporated quickly. Between the popularity of MHI’s program in Haiti and witnessing its results in the faces and laughter of the children, there was no choice but to carry on, no matter the effort.

Sara’s determination led to coordinating six benefit concerts at the Sweetwater. In some ways, Sara’s pedigree created added challenges pulling this off. Her work and MHI had to be accepted as legitimate. Sweetwater Board member, Chris Moscone explains: “You’d expect friends of Sara’s father to help out with one event, but no one wants to be part of something that fizzles. Sara’s determination, hard work and belief in the cause have made the fundraisers a continuing success.  The benefit concerts and MHI are now a thing people keep talking about. They’re a lot of fun!” Moscone added “negotiating the cast of characters in Mill Valley to sustain these events is no easy task, and Sara did it with grace.” Through it all, Nelson stayed involved, too. Sara calls him “the best person ever”. Nelson has appeared at every benefit with Weir performing alongside him at most of them. Other artists who performed at the fundraisers include Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Jackie Greene, and a host of other notable musicians.

Sadly, in 2016 amidst unstinting work leading to MHI’s growing success, Sara lost her father and step-dad in the span of four months. Hicks passed away in February and Rob Wasserman left us in June of that year. Within the grief, Sara has harnessed untapped energy and power to press on. She was in Haiti when she received the news about her dad and was the one to tell Weir, perhaps Rob’s closest friend. Heart wrenching. Two years later she was blessed with the joyous event of Gia’s birth. These opposite ends of the emotional spectrum have served to further motivate Sara.

Sara can’t help but draw on her father’s spirit, reflecting on the juxtaposed characteristics of quietly reserved [AO4] and fearlessness that defined him. She now emulates those traits in her own life. “I try my best to be fearless but being an artist, I’ve always been quiet and more internal. Fearlessness is more of a drive…if you want something to happen it’s like you’re on autopilot.” Much like when she was singing in front of large audiences or first stepped on that plane to Haiti, she agrees. “When you love to do something, you just go…it’s a passion. It comes from a place that is not necessarily in our consciousness. I saw this with my dad when he was really driven. If there is too much thinking involved, things can backfire. It’s better to go with your first instinct and try to not let fear get in the way of things you really want to do. But that’s easier said than done.”

Sara is confident her dad’s spirit remains and guides her, still supporting her as she forges her own path.  At times her dad’s presence seems obvious. The morning before Rob Wasserman’s memorial celebration, a month after his passing, Sara took a jaunt to Stinson Beach where she had spent so much time with her dad. She recalls: “It was about 6:30AM and there was no one on the beach. Clearly, no one had been there for hours. In the distance I saw what appeared to be flowers sticking out of the sand, as if someone put them there. When I got closer, I saw they were sunflowers, which my dad knew were my favorite and often gave to me.” Recounting this story, Sara shared how difficult it is for her sometimes, accepting the reality she will never see her dad again, even though his spirit lives on.

As for the energetic Gia, who Sara says is more like her mom and is “right up Dan Hicks’ alley”, she is her “inspiration for everything”. That assertion caused her to reflect that “it’s weird to think she was not here two years ago.” She is also a source of strength for Sara and setting the example of giving back “is huge for me”, she says. She is intent on passing down to Gia her dad’s philanthropic approach to life. “My father was always giving. That has always been the mindset of the Grateful Dead community.” There is also a perceptible connection between Gia and her grandfather. Sara’s due date for Gia was the date of her father’s death. Originally a bit stunned by the [AO5] news, Sara rationalized her father obviously wanted that day to be a joyous one for her, rather than sad. “That’s just who he was.”

Now while marching forward with MHI, one challenge for Sara is to hold her breath until Gia decides to travel to Europe or move to New York as a teenager, or otherwise create mischief at Old Mill Park. It’s a family thing. Add the trials of raising a child as a single mom, and you might say Sara has her hands full. But doing all this from her home, among the supportive Mill Valley community, and with her mom close by helping with all of it, Sara presses on with, well, fearlessness. She is also guided by her daily yoga routine, grounding her and providing stability. Meandering through our photo shoot for this article at Stinson Beach, and after learning more about Sara’s life, it didn’t take long to understand why Gia, visibly channeling her mom, chose to wear a Wonder Woman outfit!

As Sara continues to infuse energy into MHI, it faces new challenges, notwithstanding its success to date. COVID-19 has stalled plans for new classes in Mumbai, though teachers continue training sessions with Haitian staff across time zones via Skype, eager to begin their work. The greatest hurdle, though, is to rally financial support for MHI’s work in the absence of live benefits, which have historically provided a major source of revenue. Plans for a 7th Annual Benefit Concert fell by the wayside with COVID-19. Instead, this year’s event on November 23 will stream last year’s sold-out performance featuring Nelson, Weir, Paul Beaubrun, and Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz, accessible via the Sweetwater website. Sara also plans to reach out far and wide amongst her musical connections to put together a live-stream virtual event in the spring. According to Saunders, Jr., “When Sara calls you don’t ask what she wants…you just do it!”  We don’t doubt her expected success! “With all that is going on in the world, continuing our work for the kids is even more important”, she says, adding “this is a priority because these kids are the future of our planet. Especially in a developing country, it’s imperative to empower people where we can make big changes in their lives. With COVID, we are all realizing how connected we are. We all affect each other. In my mind, we are all one energy.”

As our interview ended, recounting the many sources motivating her, Sara told us: “seeing people who are actually making a positive impact is what inspires me.” Lucky for her, Sara Wasserman only needs to look in the mirror for inspiration.

Dennis and Sara