This interview by Angel Romero appeared in World Music Central. For the original report, photos and music videos click here.
Lakou Mizik is one of the international acts set to perform at the 216 edition of world music showcase globalFEST. The band’s leader, guitarist Steeve Valcourt discusses the band’s history and upcoming concert with World Music Central. Lakou Mizik’s manager, Zach Niles, provided assistance with some interpretation.
Can you tell us about the band you will be taking to globalFEST 2016?
Lakou Mizik is a modern Haitian roots band. We come from many musical backgrounds; vodou, gospel, rara, even some hip hop. Our instrumentation is part traditional part modern, vodou drums, rara horns, accordion but also electric guitar. We try to defy expectations. We look like a folkloric band but we feel more like a high energy dance band. Lakou Mizik’s focus is on keeping our culture strong and present while also staying rooted in the present.
Many influential North American arts presenters will be at globalFEST 2016. What do you expect to get out of it?
We are incredibly honored to be among the artists chosen for globalFEST. Our dream from the beginning of this band was to bring the real Haiti to the world. Our music is engaged, filled with country pride, positive messages but we also honestly reflect on the difficulties Haitians face. We know these difficulties very personally. BUT our music also makes you dance and smile- whether people understand our lyrics or not, we know that people will feel our music and with that we make a connection that has a lasting effect. So – our dream with globalFEST is that presenters give us the chance to be positive ambassadors around the world of our beautiful and I must say so terribly misrepresented country!
Can you give our readers a brief history of your band?
Lakou Mizik is a collective of musicians who came together with producer and manager Zach Niles in the wake of Haiti’s tragic earthquake. Myself and Jonas met Zach and we came with a vision of using our traditional music and culture as way to paint another picture of Haiti – different than what international news coverage was saying. Our voice is our music and what we wanted to say is that Haiti is more than just a sum of the natural and man-made disasters that gets reported on. We kind of started as a collective with members coming and going – but have now turned into a full band still looking at our old traditional music but also writing new music together that reflects current realities.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
Haitian rhythm. In Haiti we say “Tanbou Frape, Ayisyen Leve Danse” – when the drum is beating, Haitians dance. Whether it’s the tanbours or the snare, it’s the rhythm of our country that is at the heart of our music. Also the rara cornet (traditional horns) – Tanbour and Cornet represent Haitian culture and something that every Haitian can have pride in. We each come from different traditions from the vodou lakou, from rara, from the church from pop music this is the blend that really makes Lakou Mizik what it is.
Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
Me personally, I can say my Dad, Boulo Valcourt is a big influence on me – and one of my musical idols. But of course there are so many legends and I think each band member might think of. For me, Bob Marley and a Haitian legend named John Steeve Brunache who wrote a very powerful album in the 90s that affected me. Jonas I know loves very strong political music and James Brown. Nadine grew up listening to Whitney Houston and Emeline Michel. We are also so lucky to have one of Haiti’s legends in our band. Sanba Zao is a founder of the racine movement and major musicians that we all grew up listening to.
Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.
Lakou Mizik’s early recordings were in my basement studio in Port-au-Prince. It’s tiny. Dogs and ducks always walking into the recording booth. And there’s not always electricity but sometimes these places bring the best inspirations. We recorded Peze Kafe there in 2011 and it’s really what got the band started. We didn’t think about being a band. We thought we would record different musicians around the country. But we just kept seemed to keep finding the same people; and just having fun together. At some point Zach was asked if we would perform a show. So we had to rehearse and pretend we were a band and I guess we never looked back from there. We’re still a kind of a collective of musicians with varied backgrounds, but we’ve become more like a family now.
What musical instruments do you use?
We are not even sure how we evolved how we did. We don’t have a drum set, but we have a bass player who plays a kick drum and a percussion player who plays the snare drum. We have two tanbou players and two rara horn and percussion players. We have an accordion player and I play guitar. In some way our instrumentation reflects all the musical traditions of Haiti – vodou, troubadou, rara with some rock and roll mixed in too.
How’s the roots music scene in Haiti now?
Of course in a general sense we have strong cultural music scene. You can see Rara bands in the streets, troubadou bands on the beaches and you can walk around any night and hear the drums and chants of Vodou in the distance. But in a commercial or popular way, roots music is, you could say, stale. There are a couple of legendary groups like Boukman Eksperyans and RAM who have dominated the scene for over 20 years. And many Haitians don’t seem ready to see what the next generation might bring. It sometimes feels as though we don’t appreciate what we have in our backyard as much as what comes from “Lot bo dlo” or overseas. So much music now is imported: R&B and rap and now electronic music. But our culture is too strong. I know even with this, eventually our Haitian roots breaks through and we will make it ours. But in terms of real roots music there are very few groups trying to really keep it alive and evolve it.
If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with, whom would that be?
I think each musician in Lakou Mizik would want to bring their own. Me, personally, you know I have been a producer for so many years that at times I more identify in that way. So for me, I have always dreamed of working with Quincy Jones. His music has made such an impact on me and on culture around the world in general. That’s my biggest dream. As far as musicians go, you know my dad is a big jazz man so I grew up with that in my house always and early on. I just loved the sound of George Benson’s guitar and voice. Strange for a young guitar player in Port-au-Prince but as early as I can remember me and my friends would try to play along with George Benson. I have been listening to a lot of Santana recently and think that a Santana in Haiti album would be amazing.
Do you have any upcoming projects to share with us?
Lakou Mizik is a band filled with creative minds. We can’t sit still. Every time we are together new songs are born. Our first album “Wa Di Yo” comes out in March but we are already scheming our next album. We have also started collaborating with a Haitian dance troupe, Jean Apollon Expressions, based in Boston. We’re going to be creating original music to go with new choreography by Jean Apollon and text by Edwidge Danticat that is based around the idea of “home”. It’s inspired by the current crisis many Haitians are facing being forced out of the Dominican Republic and the immigration and refugee issues happening around the world.
Official website: www.lakoumizik.com