- Brietta Hague
Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was a well-documented tragedy and the country is continuously referred to as ‘the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere’, but what do we really know about this small yet defiant island nation? Brietta Hague reports on efforts to revive Haitian roots music.
Like a lot of Australians, my knowledge of Haiti didn’t extend far beyond the news coverage of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country and documentarian John Safran’s infamous experience with a ‘Voudou’ ceremony and a set of goat testicles.
In 2012, I was invited to the island by American music manager and producer Zach Niles to help create videos for a multimedia project about music and culture in Haiti. The idea was to showcase a group of talented musicians living in the capital city Port-au-Prince, and follow their quest to reinterpret and revive classic Haitian folk and protest songs.
When I started formulating the idea for Lakou Mizik I had a really basic idea—which was kind of like Buena Vista Social Club Haiti, which seems kind of trite and clichéd in retrospect.Zach Niles, music producer
Niles had first visited Haiti in 2009 and returned in the aftermath of the earthquake to assist with media coverage of relief efforts. During that time he experienced the contradictions that make Haiti so hard to define.
‘I think it was an interesting period for me both in having seen Haiti in its most desperate moment but also been able to see a beautiful side of Haiti,’ he says. ‘I actually had the weird conflict of being there in a really difficult, desperate, period and also daily waking up and being awestruck with how beautiful the country was at the same time. I think that that combination affected me pretty deeply.’
As a world music lover, Niles’ time in Haiti was spent exploring local music. He started researching the Haitian ‘sound’ and began reaching out to local musicians in the hope of finding both fresh talent and old stalwarts of the music scene.
Niles became a facilitator of sorts, working with a collective of Haitian musicians to bring traditional Haitian roots music back to life.
‘When I started formulating the idea for Lakou Mizik I had a really basic idea—which was kind of like Buena Vista Social Club Haiti, which seems kind of trite and clichéd in retrospect,’ he says.
Lakou Mizik is made up of a variety of musicians, namely master ‘Vodou’ drummer Sanba Zao and young stars Steeve Valcourt, Jonas Attis and Nadine Remy.
In Haitian Creole the word ‘lakou’ carries multiple meanings. It means the backyard, a gathering place where people come to sing and dance, to debate or share a meal. It also means home or where you are from.
In the wake of the earthquake of 2010, the continued barrage of negative news and images, and the repeated phrase ‘poorest country in the Western Hemisphere’, the band sees itself as a defiant musical expression of Haitian pride and hope.
Cuba and Jamaica are the Caribbean countries most famous for their music, but Haiti has one of the most creative and powerful music scenes in the world.
Haitian music may not be well represented off the the island, but many in the world music community would argue that Haiti has more passion for its art than all the other Caribbean countries put together.
‘People identify themselves as Haitians through the lens of music in ways I’ve never seen in other countries,’ says Niles.
Musicians have always played an important role in society, both documenting the country’s history and helping shape its path forward.
Politically speaking, the island’s past is complex and epic. There may be a long legacy of international occupation in Haiti, but Haiti is also famous for staging a revolution. The revolt began with a rebellion of African slaves in April 1791 and culminated in the elimination of slavery and the founding of the Republic of Haiti. The Haitian Revolution was the only slave revolt that led to the founding of a state.
During my time in Haiti I was struck by just how much political discourse and dissent defines the Haitian narrative. The country’s colonial past has also shaped its music, however. African, French, Spanish, Caribbean and American influences collide in Haiti like nowhere else in the world.
Lakou Mizik is a band that captures the diverse characteristics of the Haitian sound. The insistent rhythms of ‘Vodou’ drumming, the French café lilt of the accordion, the joyful percussive punctuation of ‘rara’ street horns, the rootsy swagger of ‘rasin’ and the creative lyrics of rap and hip hop.
Over the past few years, Lakou Mizik has been honing their electrifying live show in the clubs of Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. Their concerts are part political rally, part dance party, part ceremony—and altogether intoxicating.
They are now ready to take their music to the world, with their debut album set to be released later this year.
Brietta Hague is a digital and field producer with ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent.
Videos produced by Nico Jolliet and Zach Niles.