Bound by the sounds of Haiti

Bound by the sounds of Haiti

“I always wanted to make a difference in the area of music,” says former Montrealer Milena Sandler, general director of the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, with festival president Joel Widmaier.

Photograph by: Coralie Deluen

By Bernard Perusse, Special to THE GAZETTE December 30, 2013

MONTREAL – Milena Sandler had lived in Montreal for 15 years before moving to Belgium in 2004 and ending up in Haiti four years later. That most recent relocation was motivated by love — she married musician Joel Widmaier not long after her arrival in Haiti — but it also led to a partnership between the two that lies at the core of the annual Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival.

The festival had only just completed its second edition when Sandler — who had been doing public-relations work for the event from Belgium since its launch — moved to the festival’s home base and got even more involved.

“I always knew that I had things to do in this country,” Sandler said during a recent telephone interview from Haiti. “I always wanted to make a difference in the area of music.”

Sandler and Widmaier — general director and president of the festival, respectively — are also on the executive committee of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, which produces the yearly event in partnership with the ministries of culture and tourism, as well as various programs, embassies and sponsors.

The total festival budget managed by all parties involved is roughly $350,000, Sandler said. The jazz foundation also promotes the genre throughout the country all year.

This year’s edition of the festival will feature free and ticketed concerts, spread over a wide area. (A car is a must, Sandler said.) Performers will include Haitian native Luck Mervil, who is often based in Montreal, Toronto’s Julie Michels, Lionel Loueke, the Soul Rebels from New Orleans and Cameroon’s Sandra N’Kake, among others. Much of the schedule features Haitian artists like Darline Desca, Follow Jah, James Germain, Josué Alexis, Mikaelle Cartright, Nadège Tippenhauer, Réginald Policard and X-Key.

Headliners from previous years have included Branford Marsalis, Molly Johnson, Kellylee Evans and Aaron Goldberg. The 2013 edition of the fest, which featured Marsalis, drew about 12,000 people, Sandler said.

The catastrophic earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010 — only 10 days before the festival was due to begin — forced the cancellation of the fourth edition, but the event is still counted for the record, since all the work had been done and the acts booked, Sandler explained.

“(After the earthquake) we started looking for musicians, because that’s who we knew. We researched who had been hit, who died, who was alive and who had lost their houses,” Sandler said. “We had already received grants from some of our sponsors and partners. We asked if we could use the money, which we were not going to use for the festival, to create a fund. We identified about 50 musicians that were really in bad shape.” Each received a monthly allowance for three months, she said.

Widmaier, a jazz drummer who has been behind the festival from the outset, will perform at this year’s closing concert in a band led by his brother Mushy, a pianist. Their father, Herby, was a seminal jazz singer in the 1950s. Herby Widmaier was also a broadcaster, whose own father, Ricardo, founded Radio Haiti.

It has been observed that jazz has been part of Haiti’s musical fabric since horn-driven compas groups — dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, like the Orchestre Septentrional and the Orchestre Tropicana — were influenced by American swing bands. Swing was heard during the occupation of Haiti by the United States, which ended in 1934. Complicating the chronology, however, is the fact that “jazz” has long been used as a synonym for “band,” without necessarily describing the style.

Joel Widmaier said the influence of jazz on Haitian music really became clear relatively late, in the 1960s, mainly because improvisation became more common, but he agreed that the compas bands were part of it. “(It was) dance music, (but it) would leave a lot of space for improvisation with sax or trumpets or guitar,” he said.

“It would be no surprise to find albums from the ’60s and ’70s with songs that are 10, 12 minutes long,” journalist and author Ralph Boncy said. “(Some) Haitians believe jazz was born somewhere between Africa and America, so the Creole link, the Caribbean spark, is something we cherish.” Boncy cited Issa El Saieh, Guy Durosier and Herby Widmaier as important jazz pioneers in mixing indigenous music with jazz.

Creole jazz, at least the Haitian variety, continues to incorporate voodoo rhythms. It’s a fusion Joel Widmaier embraced in the 1980s, but he said that approach can even be heard on his father’s records. Boncy said the Widmaier brothers are among the artists who have been pushing the boundaries of incorporating their native rhythms into jazz. The foundation headed by Widmaier considers the promotion of Creole jazz as part of its mandate.

Cécile McLorin Salvant, a critic’s darling who is nominated for a Grammy this year in the jazz vocal album category, and trumpet player Jean Caze are examples of native Haitians who are making successful careers in the field in the United States, Boncy said.

“Many of them are now leading bands. We didn’t have that before. The training of the average Haitian musician would be more self-taught or more into rock and compas, but right now (these young musicians) keep competing at the Thelonious Monk jazz competition every year,” Boncy said.

The Port-au-Prince festival has pretty much stuck to an actual jazz agenda — unlike, for example, its larger Montreal counterpart. “The interesting thing is that it happens in venues that sell tickets to upper-middle-class audiences, and the same band would play the day before or the day after on the public square by the National Palace — for free, in the open air,” said Boncy, who acted as an MC at the inaugural festival.

“You’d see people from the slums and people who don’t look like jazz consumers or jazz buyers, but would find it easy to get into what was happening on stage and appreciate it,” Boncy said. “It looks like a good move that Joel made in believing that jazz didn’t have to remain for elite types of musical taste and going for a festival that brings jazz culture to people. And it works.”

The eighth annual Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival takes place from Jan. 18 to 25, with some pre-festival shows scheduled for Jan. 17. For more details, visit For information on travel packages, visit

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