Steve Hochman, writing for the Spinner.com site, looks at the links between Haitian and New Orleans music as he previews performances in New Orleans by RAM Haiti and Boukman Eksperyans.
When the bands RAM Haiti and Boukman Eksperyans played at the 1994 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as part of the spring event’s spotlight on Haitian arts and cultures that year, the shared aspects of the two places were hard to miss for the visiting musicians. The generations-ago influx of Afro-Caribbean traditions via the slave trade and, in particular, diaspora following the Haitian slave rebellion linked the locales by history and culture: the Vodou ceremonies and drumming that became jazz in New Orleans’ Congo Square, the carnival parades, the architecture, the food. Oh yes, the food.
“Hot spices, rice and beans, a lot of similarities,” says RAM Haiti founder and leader Richard A. Morse.
“We have a lot in common,” says Boukman co-founder Theodore “Lolo” Beaubrun. “The food, a lot of things. New Orleans is like a Caribbean city.”
They’ll get to have the food again when their bands play Jazz Fest again this year as part of another spotlight on Haitian music. RAM and Boukman — both prominent in the “mizik rasin” roots-music movement — along with erstwhile presidential candidate Wyclef Jean, Tabou Combo, Emeline Michel and an array of parades, workshops, exhibits and art vendors will be featured during the festival that takes place over the last weekend in April and first weekend in May.
This all happens in the context of a bill that ranges from such headliners as Jimmy Buffett, Arcade Fire, the Strokes, Kid Rock and Bon Jovi, top names in jazz (Ron Carter, Terence Blanchard) and blues (Bobby “Blue” Bland, Charlie Musselwhite) and a full spectrum of artists from New Orleans (Dr. John, Allen Toussaint).
The connection is clear from the Haitians’ music, as is evident in the below video for RAM’s official 2009 Kanaval song. It’s the kind of thing the group has been doing since the mid-’90s in weekly gigs in Port-au-Prince at the historic Hotel Oloffson, which Morse manages and has turned into a vital cultural center (and was also featured in Graham Greene’s ‘The Comedians’).
The relationship can also be heard in Boukman’s exuberant ‘Ke’-M Pa Sote [I'm Not Afraid],’ a prime example of the groundbreaking brand of Vodou rock that has kept the group at the forefront of Haitian music since the ’80s, the African roots undiminished by the ages.
But this time there’s something else shared by the two places: recent devastations. New Orleans has suffered from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, and Haiti — beset through the years with natural disasters, oppressive governments and, directly tied to both, crushing poverty — was hit by a massive earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. With all that in mind, the level of Haitian presence at Jazz Fest will be unprecedented, well beyond the ’94 lineup. Anchoring the spectacle will be a Haitian village pavilion with a variety of performances, panels and a special exhibit built around the music and film archives from ethnographer Alan Lomax’s stays there in the 1930s (the release of which in 2009 was the subject of an Around the World column at the time).
“For me, it all goes back to a Cyril Neville song and that’s the one thing that keeps coming to my mind,” says Quint Davis, Jazz Fest founder and CEO of Festival Productions. “The song is ‘That’s My Blood Down There.’ That says it all. On the one hand, doing Haiti any time would have been totally appropriate for us. New Orleans is the only city in North America that practiced Vodou. The rhythms that came from Africa through Haiti to Congo Square created jazz, and all the human connections. So, everything the festival is about in general — the heritage of jazz as uniquely played out in New Orleans and everything our international mission is about, getting these artists and having rara parades and getting those musicians together with local artists.”
“And then comes the earthquake,” he continues. “Who else in America has had their city destroyed? What other society in America had their world destroyed, completely destroyed and had to rebuild every part of their infrastructure and society and buildings and phones and utilities and educational and legal systems — everything? Us. We know firsthand in ways no one else knows what they’re going through.”
When Davis started investigating the potential of a Haitian emphasis this year, one of the first people he contacted was Jimmy Buffett, who had been hands-on in the aid and recovery efforts after the quake with cash contributions, airlifts of goods and personnel via his private plane and the availability of leaders within his business empire. Chief among the latter is Donna Smith, aka Sunshine, the founder of Buffett’s Margaritaville eateries chain. The musician hooked Davis up with Smith and, in August, he and Jazz Fest international arts producer Valerie Guillet headed to Haiti. The news crews had moved on and Haiti was no longer in the headlines, but the struggles remained as great as they were in the days after the quake — something Davis knew from the New Orleans experience. The mission was clear, just as Jazz Fest’s post-Katrina role was.
“We’re not the builders of roads,” he says. “We’re the culture — the music, the art, the food. So we brought Jazz Fest back that first year, our opportunity to shine a light in the darkness from a cultural view to show this is what we are and why it’s worth fighting for. That applied perfectly to Haiti. Here’s a place with all this unbelievably rich culture. For these reasons, we as the producers went to the [New Orleans Jazz & Heritage] Foundation and proposed that we dedicate the festival to Haiti and do with Haiti what we did before. We proposed putting a sizable bit of money, six figures, into the budget.”
From there, all the pieces started to come together quickly. The Green Family Fund, which had been instrumental in underwriting the release of the Lomax music and film and had created a venture to present the material in those same Haitian villages where he filmed, stepped up to make the presentation of it at Jazz Fest. Haitian art collector Jacques Bartoli and longtime Jazz Fest art vendor Marie Josie Poux took the lead in tapping the community of Haitian artists and craftspeople to participate. Brand Aid, an organization that connects traditional artists with retailers worldwide, also came onboard. New Orleans Saints football star Jonathan Vilma, whose parents were born in Haiti, also joined this team as an extension of his intensive efforts in Haiti to build and rebuild schools as a key part of post-quake recovery.
And, of course, there were the musicians, with Emeline Michel and RAM’s Morse enlisted to take leadership roles.
“Richard Morse not only helped on the musical side, but in general on the whole understanding of the culture, implementing the culture, getting things right, if you will,” Davis says. “RAM’s going to play a lot of functions in the festival. They’re going to rara parade, perform onstage and do the educational workshops in the schools. And it’s the RAM drummers doing all the drumming in the pavilion. All those aspects are coming out of Richard’s work creating RAM itself. RAM does these kinds of things down there, weekly dance lessons. It’s about consciously promoting work in the culture.”
Michel, who has been overseeing a lot of cultural events at New York’s Lincoln Center, is something of the “Miriam Makeba of Haiti — a great musician but also a leader,” Davis says. Among the performances she’ll be doing will be a collaboration with New Orleans clarinetist/scholar Dr. Michael White to explore the links between Creole song and the fabric of traditional jazz. Michel was also instrumental in bringing in many of the other Haitian artists.
Morse sees this as a two-way dialogue. “New Orleans is becoming more aware of Haiti, but because of the way news and events happen here, Haiti is not becoming more aware of New Orleans,” he says, noting that Miami in recent decades has become more the center of Haitian culture in the US. “Jazz Fest is a great opportunity to make people aware of the history. There are no real roots and culture in Miami that have to do with Haiti except for very recently. I’m hoping there will be publicity, hope they’ll reach out to the Haitian people in New York and Miami and Boston to come to Jazz Fest. People will show up in the French Quarter and say, ‘I’m home!’”
During the festival, Morse will certainly feel at home. “I’ll be there about 10 days. My drummers will be drumming in some ceremonies, there will be rara parades, workshops. I’m really looking forward to it. So many people in the band — about 16 people onstage — that we can do all kinds of stuff.”
In the end, Davis hopes, Jazz Fest can do for Haiti after the quake what it did for its home city after the flood.
“Our mission, our role, is to showcase the bright light that art and culture plays in society and in souls,” he says. “That’s what brought us back.”
But for all the grand intentions, there will also be plenty of in-the-moment pleasures. “When these bands get up and play, we got it,” Davis says. “We’re going to be dancing.”
For more on Boukman Eksperyans go to Boukman Eksperyans Artist Main
For the original report and links to music and video go to http://www.spinner.com/2011/03/30/jazz-fest-2011-haiti/