In Haiti, ‘Rhythm Rests in Our Marrow’

BY Tom LeGro  January 12, 2011 at 3:14 PM EST

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A man plays music to children under a tent city classroom in Delmas, near the capital of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images.

Jan. 12 marks the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Among the millions of Haitians still homeless and rebuilding their lives are artists — painters, musicians, writers. This week, Haitian-American poet and scholar Patrick Sylvain will be writing for Art Beat about his home country and its art, its history and future, and how its artists are surviving in the earthquake’s aftermath.

Music is the tenor of Haitian cultural life, carved out of the oppression of slavery and the desire to live freely. It represents a cultural ethos based upon human reality.

In Haiti, music and dance are ubiquitous. Emotions are routinely expressed through musical outpourings, as if rhythm rests in our marrow. And it very well may. As an Afro-Caribbean nation tinged with French/European and Amerindian culture, Haiti is a complex, multi-dimensional musical entity with numerous influences to draw from.

Perhaps the most prominent of these cultural influences derives from our connection to West Africa, in both technique and spirituality. Just as with the visual arts, music and dance are strongly influenced by Vodoun. In Haiti, Vodoun is not only a religious system; it is a way of life, a cultural tapestry with embroidered music and dances. One doesn’t have to be a believer to be familiar with its presence; its expressions are everywhere, subtly and overtly.

I grew up with four brothers who are well-known musicians of Konpa, Haiti’s pop-music genre. With its bubbly light cadences, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that it might have strong spiritual underpinnings. I learned early on, however, that even the most superficial of songs often draws from the theme of resistance, a central tenet of Vodoun and a quintessential premise of the Haitian existence.

Certain Konpa groups, like Magnum Band and DP Express, brought a level of consciousness to music that often confronted the ruling interest. Especially with the departure of ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”) in 1986, popular Konpa music was slightly dashed by politically charged lyrics that were mainly influenced by the new acclimated form of Vodoun rock of Boukman Eksperyans, RAM and other mizik rasin (“roots music”) groups.

During the American military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, writer and diplomat Jean Price-Mars inspired a national movement that challenged Western aesthetic values in the national consciousness. As Caribbean music expert Peter Manuel wrote: “There were musical responses to Price-Mars’s call for a national Haitian music. Classical composers like Justin Elie, Ludovic Lamothe, and Werner Jaegerhuber wrote orchestral and chamber music utilizing either vodou melodies or tunes inspired by Haitian religious ritual. Others, like the leaders of popular dance bands, introduced the drum, scraper, and melodies from the vodou ceremony into a big-band format. Perhaps the most famous of the ‘vodou-jazz’ groups was Jazz des Jeunes (Youth Jazz), which used vodou rhythms such as the kongo, ibo, and yanvalou in musical arrangements that were based on dance-band formats.”

Today, this trend continues with New York-based musicians such as Mozayik and Buju Ambroise, who regularly play American jazz standards over Vodoun rhythms. Likewise, Haitian opera singers Fabienne Denis and Marie Chantal Landais have rendered ritual Voudun songs into timeless masterpieces.

From the 1930s to the early part of the 1970s, the Haitian musical scene became the site of cross-cultural mingling. Cuban and American musicians regularly played and studied in Haiti, and Haitian musicians crossed musical waters to incorporate Cuban and American musical styles. Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes played with Haitian musician and band leader Issa El Saieh, who popularized Haitian big-band and modernized the meringue, which was very popular with the upper-class. At the same time, Nono Lamy, Guy Durosier and Raoul Guillaume expanded jazz in Haiti.

Conversely, the influence of Haitian music was significant on American shores. On a 1960 album entitled, “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln paid tribute to the country by composing the score, “Haitian March.” Through conversations with Roach, I learned that he had at one time hoped to study with Haitian master drummer Tiroro but had been unable to because of rigid social prejudices that existed against the poor. He lamented that after waiting for several hours, the concierge of the hotel where he stayed in Haiti would not allow Tiroro to enter. Forty years later, he still regretted not having met him, as he had been greatly influenced by Tiroro’s hand drum technique.

Roach and Lincoln were only two of several jazz musicians who linked the Haitian experience to the universal black cause for social and political liberation. Charles Mingus composed a piece for Haiti called “Haitian Fight Song.” In the roster of Mingus’ compositions, it is ranked among his best pieces.

American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and her student, Lavinia Williams, were responsible for bringing the Haitian peasant dance culture to the United States as a form worthy of the stages of New York and Hollywood.

Today, Haitian dancers and groups like Jeanguy Saintus of Ayikodans Company, Erol Josue, Jean Appolon, La Troupe Makandal and others, have defied the prejudices propagated by the Haitian elites through the 1960s by bringing to the world the essence of Haiti’s culture, Vodoun, in both its secular and ritualistic dance forms.

Music and politics in Haiti have always been linked, both in the form of resistance through a lamenting of social conditions and/or in the support of a particular government regime. Unlike the festive and bubbly tunes performed during carnival by konpa bands, mizik rasin (“roots music”) and mizik angaje (“engaged music”) are concerned with the social and the political. Their aim is to inform the public and denounce the ills of society.

The hero of mizik angaje is Manno Charlemagne, the Bob Dylan of Haiti. He made a name for himself by publically denouncing the politics of Duvalier and lambasting the Macoute corps that terrorized Haiti. In the exile communities of New York, Boston and other cities during the 1970s and ’80s, groups formed to sustain musical resistance and a connection to the homeland. “Le n’a Libere” (“When We Are Free”), written in the United States by Jean-Claude Martineau, became the voice of hope and resistance for many who had been separated from Haiti.

A comprehensive collection of Haitian music should be a thorough representation of the multiple dimensions of the Haitian hybrid existence. This would include the following musicians and groups: the modern queen of Haitian music, Emeline Michel; the gripping lyrics of Beethova Obas; the diva of complaint music (the Haitian version of the blues), Toto Bissainthe; the rap and raga rhythms of Barikad Crew; the intrepid Boukman Eksperyans; the soft Vodoun-rock of RAM; the exciting cadences of CARIMI; the melodies of Luck Mervil; the socially conscious and historically poignant peasant sounds of Awozan; the important and vibrant Vodoun repertoire of Wawa and Azor; and finally, Batwel Rada and Belo, who bring a new consciousness to Haitian popular music.

Patrick SylvainEditor’s Note: Patrick Sylvain is a poet, writer, photographer and a social critic. He works as a Haitian language and culture instructor at Brown University, a language coach at Harvard University, and has taught in the anthropology department of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. In 1998, as a Conant Fellow, Sylvain graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has been published in numerous anthologies and journals, including: African American Review, Agni, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Caribbean Writers, Crab Orchard Review, Haiti Noir, Haitian Times, Massachusetts Review and Ploughshares. His latest bilingual poetry collection is “Love, Lust & Loss,” which was published in 2005 by Memoire D’Encrier. Sylvain is also a frequent contributor to the Boston Haitian Reporter and is currently working on two collections of poetry, “Spirit Chaser” and “Windows of Exile” and a multidisciplinary book on Haiti, “Framing Structural Violence.”