An international jazz festival in Haiti hopes to attract fans and artists with support of local embassies in the earthquake-ravaged country. The festival is more than a marketing tool, say organizers.
By Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE — The improvised scales of the soprano saxophone dance off the soundproof walls, creating a mosaic of sound fused by African and Haitian rhythms.
This mélange of Caribbean, American and European cultures is not what one immediately associates with Haiti, an island nation known for chaos and konpa, the slow, timed Haitian meringue swayed by horns and electronic keyboards.
But the introduction of Creole jazz, and its growing popularity, represents part of this nation’s cultural rebirth. Here, inside a gingerbread architecture-inspired French cultural center rebuilt after the earthquake near the ruins of downtown, Creole jazz is having its moment as Thurgot Theodat’s weathered sax transforms the American-born art form across barriers of the Atlantic Ocean, language and culture.
“Creole jazz for me is all the rhythms that are related to the Caribbean culture,” bass player Richard Barbot, who has recorded with both jazz and konpa artists, said before joining Theodat in a practice jam session one recent morning. “Dancing isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines music.”
Jazz was born in the African-American South in the early 1900s — in many ways, the soundtrack to the nation’s political, social and economic history. Reinterpreted in Haiti, it has attracted a small but growing audience lured by the distinctive regional flavors: conga drums and traditional Voudou rhythms superimposed onto classical jazz chords.
But over the next seven days, Haiti will be all about jazz as the country hosts more than 20 bands representing 11 countries — including the Dominican Republic, Canada and the United States — during this year’s Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival. All the foreign bands are being flown in by their respective embassies’ cultural sections. Two of the artists live in South Florida.
“This is the only project they have where they can be together and not political,” festival founder and drummer Joel Widmaier said half-jokingly about the embassies, which contribute between $10,000 and $20,000 per band. “They are very proud to present their bands like their flags.”
Founded in 2007, the festival has taken place each year except for 2010, when Haiti’s devastating earthquake forced cancellation 10 days before showtime. It was the concept of Widmaier, who with wife Milena Sandler runs Fondation Haiti Jazz, which organizes the festival and other events during the year to promote jazz in Haiti.
“We want this festival to be one of the jazz festivals of the Caribbean, to bring jazz lovers to Haiti,” said Sandler, adding that it costs about $270,000 to stage the annual event.
In recent years, jazz festivals have become common in the Caribbean, with the island nations hoping the star-studded lineups will boost tourism revenues. Haiti festival supporters hope to reach that level of success someday for their tourist-starved nation, but for now, the festival has a broader mission: helping Haitian musicians, and developing interest in a kind of music introduced in 1915 during the U.S. occupation.
For years, that mission belonged to a select few including Widmaier’s dad, Herby Widmaier. A singer, he started playing jazz in the 1950s at Radio Haiti, a station owned by his dad, Ricardo Widmaier. In the 1970s, the younger Widmaier founded Radio Metropole, Haiti’s first FM station, and began promoting the music genre in his “Music from 10 to 11” weeknight English radio show. He and partner Gerald Merceron later promoted concerts in Haiti featuring the likes of singers Sarah Vaughan and George Benson and acoustic jazz bassists Ron Carter, among others.
“They got a lot of young folks to start playing jazz. I was one of them,” said Jean Jean-Pierre, a Haiti-born musician, composer and arranger who has played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. “You saw the artists and it was ‘Wow.’ …You became inspired.”
Forty years later, Joel Widmaier is hoping to pass on that same kind of inspiration by reintroducing Haitians to a style that once heavily influenced the country’s own musical acts of the 1940s and ’50s.
Concerts here will take place in five venues including free after sets each night at the upscale Petionville restaurant, Quartier Latin. Another feature of the festival is daily music education workshops. All visiting artists are required to teach one.
“Last year we were expecting 15 to 20 musicians,” said Mushy Widmaier, Joel’s brother and a Miami-based jazz musician who is performing this year. “There were days we had 60 guys. I said, ‘Where did all of these guys come from?’ ”
The workshops, he said, are an opportunity to not only introduce Haitian musicians to seasoned and polished artists, but give them a chance to hone their own skills through courses in improvisation, harmony and arrangements. It’s an education many Haitian musicians wouldn’t otherwise get on an island where formal music training has long been lacking.
“This is a country where all the music you are listening to is from talent. It doesn’t come from schooling,” Mushy Widmaier said.
Jean-Pierre commends the festival’s efforts but said both organizers and embassies can do more.
“There is no follow up,” he said, referring to the workshops. “There is a level of playing that is required in jazz that pushes musicians to learn more, enables them to play other forms of music better.”
Also, he said, the cultural sections especially that of the United States can do more to grow the genre by bringing more big-name American jazz artists to Haiti.
“There are really some great players from all over the world, but the U.S. is the nearest big neighbor. They influence everything in Haiti. Why not this, this art form that is typically American?” he said.
Still, the festival will feature some notable headliners, organizers say. They include Rafael Mirabel from the Dominican Republic; New York-based saxophonist Jacques Schwarz Bart and his “Jazz Racine Haiti” project featuring Miami-based Haitian drummer Jean Baptiste Bonga; and Canadian artist Kellylee Evans, winner of a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy).
Local Haitian jazz artists who will perform include Theodat’s Badji ensemble. Along with Claude Carré, Badji kicked off the festival Friday in Les Cayes, the southwestern port city that this year will host its first annual Haitian carnival. It’s the first time, as well, that the jazz festival ventured outside of Port-au-Prince.
“Popular music has changed in the United States, so it has had a significant meaning in Haitian popular music,” said Theodat, preparing to lead his band into a morning practice session. “This festival brings the spotlight to the musicians who are playing this music. It brings the spotlight to Haiti with its cultural diversity and says that Haitian people can also play jazz, they can also appreciate jazz.”
And while it’s tough being a musician anywhere, it’s especially tough being a jazz musician in Haiti.
“There is a great gap among the musicians here,’’ he said. “I don’t play konpa, I could. I’m not invited to play with konpa artists because the music they are playing, there is no room for me. They don’t feel the need to have a saxophone soloist in this music.”
“Jazz for me is about freedom,” he added. “It’s the ability to express who you are, what you’re feeling at the moment.”
Said Jean-Pierre: “Jazz is more than music; it’s a way of life.”