[10 February 2014]
Haitians have been making lemonade out of lemons since at least 1804. In that year, they were the first nation on Earth to officially rise up and toss their French colonial slave masters kicking and screaming back to the old world, scaring the piss out of white slaveholders across the Americas in the process. Since that time, Haitian culture has developed into one of richest and most vibrant expressions of humanity in the world. Their traditional religion draws on deep African Roots, Roman Catholicism, neighboring Caribbean traditions, and whatever else that they can make use of in order to create a unique, adaptable, and beautiful way of seeing and coping with the world around them. The Haitian language is similarly syncretic, emerging from its numerous influences to be something wholly its own. Haitian music, to get to the matter at hand, is equally dynamic and inclusive. Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978 offers a sweeping, almost overwhelming introduction to the innovative Haitian music that developed during the despotic regimes of “Papa” and “Baby” Doc Duvalier.
Haiti Direct is a sprawling compilation that spans nearly 20 years. The music reflects both the relatively long period of time and the numerous musical movements that came about in these years. Some tracks sound like driving, hypnotic, psychedelic jazz rock; like something Frank Zappa might have come up with. Other tracks more clearly reflect that heavy meringue influence from neighboring Dominican Republic, and indeed, virtually all of these tracks retain some vestiges of meringue. American jazz of numerous pedigrees and varieties is also infused in the rollicking, ass-shaking material that makes up this compilation.
At times you hear a Charlie Parker devotee come wailing and squalling above the relentless rhythm section, and at other times this stuff feels very indebted to old school New Orleans jazz. Much of the noodling, melodic guitar work sounds very much like South African pop music or Afrobeat, and very unlike what you might expect from an American jazz guitarist. Traditional French music is also a recurring theme in these various tracks and stylistic shifts. Accordions moan and groan, pushing melodies in new, gorgeous directions. Like every other aspect of Haitian culture, the music that comprises the three genres being represented here, Big Band, Mini Jazz and Twoubadou, fearlessly borrows from the available cultural traditions and creates something fantastically original with the disparate ingredients.
There is a tremendous amount of stylistic variation on Haiti Direct. You do not need to be an expert on Haitian or Caribbean music to appreciate the shifts in both vocal and instrumental styles from track to track. With that in mind, there is one similarity that does seem to bring all of this stuff together: this stuff feels like party music. These tracks feel like music for street festivals, all-night dance parties, hot, sweaty clubs and generalized revelry. It is impossible not to move, twitch or gesticulate to the banging, pounding rhythm sections and slither around in the seat of your car to the infectious, melodic hooks. As far as I know, there are no Haitian dance clubs in my neighborhood, but I am tempted to start one myself, because this stuff makes you want to get down.
Haiti Direct makes the latest pop-hop anthem blowing up suburban clubs and top 40 radio in the States sound as lifeless and unnecessary as an old Lawrence Welk tune. These genres represent a time of immense strife for the people of Haiti, when poverty, disease and unimaginable political repression were all unavoidable facts of everyday life. The musicians on this compilation are a testament to the creativity, dynamism and exuberance of the Haitian people. Listening to this stuff gives me hope regarding my own personal struggles, as well as hope regarding the ongoing turmoil that continues to afflict Haiti itself. Throw a party, invite all of your friends, play Haiti Direct at top volume and experience the resiliency of the human spirit in action.