Haiti’s lost music

A treasure trove of Haitian music, recorded in the 1930s, is brought back to the country as it tries to rebuild after the earthquake.

The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12 was unlike any other natural disaster in recent history. It killed an estimated 250,000 people and left more than a million homeless, but it also destroyed much of the country’s cultural legacy. Hundreds of historic buildings, monuments, art collections, recording studios and libraries were buried in the rubble.

Producers: Anthony Lappé and Laura van Straaten

Anna Lomax Wood is trying to help Haiti hold onto its past as it looks to the future. Her father, the famous ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (1915-2002), traveled to Haiti in 1935-6. Working for the Library of Congress, the then 21-year-old recorded more than 50 hours of Haitian music. The scratchy recordings captured the rich tapestry of Haitian music, from West African and Congolese drumming to French lullabies to New Orleans jazz imported by U.S. Marines. But these rare recordings sat for decades in the Library of Congress archives.

Now his daughter is trying to use these recordings — which were painstakingly remastered and released in 2009 in a box set from Lomax Wood’s Association for Cultural Equity — as a healing tool for Haitians.

This spring, Lomax Wood began what her father called “repatriating” the music to its rightful owners in a program funded by the Miami-based Green Family Foundation. She traveled to Leogane, a town near the epicenter of the earthquake where her father recorded some of his most memorable moments on tape and film. She played the music and the archival film for survivors, young and old. For many of the older generation, this was the music of time long past.

The late ’30s and early ’40s in Haiti was a time of a change and hope. An often brutal U.S. occupation had just ended, and the country had a democratically elected president. While Hollywood was turning out zombie movies, novelists like Zora Neale Hurston were writing about Haiti’s cultural renaissance. Lomax turned to Hurston to help him get Haitians to accept him into their homes, their celebrations and their most sacred religious ceremonies. Much of Lomax’s recording captures the complex rhythms of Haiti’s African-based voodoo religion. The result was a trove of music history that many Haitians now consider to be priceless.

Jacky Lumarque, head of Quisqueya University in Haiti, is working to rebuild the institution’s buildings, which were almost entirely destroyed in the earthquake. But he believes there is much more to the rebuilding process than bricks and mortar.

“One of the lessons we learned after the earthquake is that reconstruction is necessary, but it’s not in buildings. It’s not in facilities. The most important aspect of reconstruction is in humans. And to do that, to do that, culture most be the most fundamental aspect of the reconstruction program. Haiti already has that. It’s part of our own fundamental wealth. We don’t need technical assistance for that. It’s inside us,” he said. “Lomax shows us that has been possible – we can do it at some point and we can do it again.”

Related:

To explore the Alan Lomax archive, including sounds from Haiti and the American south, visit the Association of Cultural Equity website.

Essay: For Haiti to move forward, we must return to our culture

 
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Comments

  • Dominicana

    This is an amazing report!

  • Kevin Lord

    It’s great to see a reason to smile for Haiti and her people! I’m still working trying to raise awareness on Haitians’ plight and their need for our help with development assistance. We’re pulling for ya, Haiti !! Hang in there!

  • Kristy Andersen

    Although it sounds like it could have happened, I don’t know that Zora was much help to Alan Lomax in Haiti. She sent him a short note before she herself left on her trip there giving him some minor tips about the music and dance. She was interested in studying the vadoun religion there, and had traveled to the country on a Guggenheim fellowship for the purposes of researching a book about a Moses-type character whose magic was grounded in the Vadoun religion (voodoo). The book became Moses Man of the Mountain. She also wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in Haiti, in seven weeks, inspired by a failed love affair, and undoubtedly by the beauty of the country which she wrote about in her letters. When she returned to the US, she wrote Tell My Horse, a book which documents the theology of the Vadoun religion and its deity.

    How wonderful these recordings are now being released. Kudos to Anna Wood and the Cultural Equity folks.

  • Ria

    Super story…. great job Lomax Wood!!

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  • Glpamphile-67

    has a haitien i think miss lomax for those recording they take me way back to my roots,and he gave me a reason to smile.may the spirit be with u miss lomax and like we said ; ayibobo for u and ur crew .

  • Kohlironbuy

    Love the idea, I tried them ,pretty cool!
    Why there are more and more people buying our wrought iron entrance doors in such a bad housing market? Because we never lose the love for the beautiful life.

    http://www.irondoors4u.com