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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.”


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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