Mizik rasin is the term usually used to describe modern Haitian roots music. It evokes sound, history, and Vodou-related spirituality, the past informing the present. On the new album Vodou Alé, Gonaïves, Haiti-based ensemble Chouk Bwa team up with the Brussels-based Ångströmers to push forward even further, the unlikely partnership forging a transcultural path toward an electric future.
From the start, Vodou Alé is no ordinary mizik rasin release. The subtlest foreshock of synths sets the stage for the first driving rhythmic ostinati of many, acoustic percussion driving vintage electronics in a way that amplifies the all-important drums rather than overshadowing them. The voice of lead singer Sambaton Dorvil calls out, rich and resonant, and the rest of the six-piece group responds in a powerful chorus. The Ångströmers’ electronic effects grow as the energy of the track builds, directly linked to the Haitian instruments and musicians. Filling the soundscape with enhancements of the natural reverberations makes for a more immersive musical experience, closer to a live performance — or a brewing storm, ready for awe-inspiring release.
As the album moves forward, the thunder keeps rolling. “Move Tan” glides between waves of percussion and frenzied vocals, the underlying electronics swelling, fading, and swelling again. They flow directly into “Odjay – Nati Kongo”, where the dense polyrhythms grow even tighter, more intense. “Rårå” sees percussion, mostly unaccompanied. In the absence of human voices, the drums find ways to communicate and engage their audience. “Sali Lento” hits hard, with klaxon-like sounds ringing out behind Dorvil’s dynamic leadership and the entire Chouk Bwa ensemble of vocals and rhythms.
“Kay Marasa Dub” is the album’s still-lively, ever-intricate answer to chillout music. “Peleren” is an impassioned vocal solo from Dorvil set against a thick backdrop of jungle nightlife — crickets and frogs — that leads into the six riveting, unpredictable minutes of “Negriye”. Track “Fidelite” closes the album, hopeful vocal harmonies dominant over one of the album’s relatively minimal drum lines. Here, the Ångströmers’ effects are at their peak, allowing Chouk Bwa to resonate and rise at the close of the album.
Conceptually, the idea of electronically-enhanced international folk music is tried and true in many cases. Mizik rasin, though, is a style of music already typically characterized by rhythmic and textural complexity, making it difficult to add in outside elements without muddying the musical waters. It’s for this reason that the approach that Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers take is such a clever one. The members of Chouk Bwa play unimpeded, the electronics following them rather than the two components having to engage in give and take.
Chouk Bwa is in charge, and the Ångströmers follow in their wake, building in echoes that mimic the energy of a live performance for a carefully finished studio recording. For mizik rasin ensembles like Chouk Bwa, this is arguably ideal; the culturally sacrosanct drums remain necessarily central, while the communal energy of the ensemble shines. Vodou Alé is less an attempt at hybridization than a contemporary approach to vibrant, longstanding musical traditions, unique, entrancing, and glorious.