At present, rare is the musical release that truly functions as a vital historical document. A wide variety of sounds and perspectives though the recombination of genres and styles across the world has birthed excellent music, but are, by nature, products of contemporary society. Therefore, when a vast collection of previously unreleased, unheard music from 70 years ago achieves release it offers up the opportunity to experience something truly unique. Such is the case with Alan Lomax in Haiti, an exhaustive ten-disc collection of field recordings from a vital time in Haiti’s history.
The 15-year occupation of Haiti by the United States had ended two years before a young Alan Lomax and his soon-to-be wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold arrived in the country for a four-month mission of ethnographic work. At that time, a handful of other researchers and authors descended on the island nation to write about the country’s people, landscape, and readjustment to self-rule. Many of these individuals contributed to the sensationalism of the Vodou (or Vodoo) religion, and Haitian officials were reticent to allow another foreigner into the country to add to popular misrepresentations. Lomax’s aim was an idealistic one, however, and by no means nefarious: he endeavored to record, preserve, and champion the music of the average Haitian person.
The results of his journey yielded 1500 recordings throughout the years 1936 and 1937. As these were the early days of ethnomusicology, the technologies Lomax employed for his field recordings were rudimentary. Housed in the Library of Congress, the entity that sponsored the journey, the recordings languished until Lomax revisited them in the 1970s. Ultimately he determined them unfit for release due to the high levels of surface noise and distortion. Recent advances in digital technology never used on sound recordings before enabled the release of this music for the first time.
The collection represents a wide variety of Haitian styles: Vodou, Rada, Petro, Zandor, Congo, rara, Mardi Gras, romance (an extinct style of music), combite, and conte. The influences of early American jazz, Catholicism, French colonialism, African traditions, agricultural work songs, and a range of other societal and political factors coalescence into these distinct styles of music. The sound may intermittently drop out, but the human emotions that permeate the music remain consistently high. The hardship that the Haitian people endured under colonial rule and occupation lends a weight to the sounds captured and the sentiments behind them: the sorrow sounds deeper and the joy sounds more inspiring. To a far lesser extent, the obstacles Lomax and his wife overcame during their journey (malaria, government red tape, logistical issues, cultural barriers, etc.) in documenting these musicians also add to the wonder of this release.
Two books are included with the ten discs of music: Alan Lomax’s field journals transcribed and annotated by his niece, Ellen Harold and a hardcover collection of liner notes by Haitian scholar Gage Averill. A map of Haiti annotated by Lomax and restored film footage of the journey is also included in the release. In total, it’s a daunting package to digest, but one that yields vast insight into another time and place unattainable before now. In particular, Averill’s readable liner notes provide necessary historical and interpretative framework for the listener and Lomax’s field journal is a fascinating insight into his mindset. It’s easy to lose oneself in the extra material, but the music itself is the biggest draw. The music’s historical importance notwithstanding and absorbed in manageable installments, this is an entertaining listen.
If there is a criticism for such a well-packaged historical document such as this, it might be with its steep price tag that undermines the populist bent of the original project. A release of a single compilation disc would prove more amenable for those preferring an introduction to the collection rather than a master class in Haitian music. Nevertheless, Alan Lomax in Haiti represents two primary triumphs: one of technology and one of humanity.
// Notes from the Road
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