Various: Tanbou Toujou Lou - Merengue, Kompa Kreyou, Vodou Jazz and Electric Folklore from Haiti
What it lacks in any immediately identifiable musical and geographic point of origin, this collection of mid-20th Century Haitian recordings more than makes up for in its unique cultural and stylistic fusion.
As with much of the music within the Western Hemisphere, the direct point of origin can be traced back to West Africa. And while its very presence can be traced back to an extremely sordid period in history, the music itself retains an impassioned vitality that belies the unfathomable circumstances under which it made the initial voyage to the so-called New World. And given the unified point of origin, it’s little wonder that much of the music permeating the Caribbean, Latin and even parts of South America share much in common. From the immediately identifiable rhythmic figures, many based on the clavé, there comes a root language, much like the Romance languages, in which there exists a shared understanding. To be sure, there are distinct stylistic and cultural differences behind each form existing within the Americas, but there is a coalescing through line rooted in rhythm and dance in all its incarnations.
Lacking a defined musical identity of its own, the music of Haiti affords a richly diverse confluence of styles ranging from the Afro-Cuban to Cumbia, Merengue and myriad points in between. But the unifying facet throughout, regardless of style or point of origin, is rhythm. As with Cuban music, these prime Haitian cuts featured on the recently released Tanbou Toujou Lou: Merengue, Kompa Kreyou, Vodou Jazz and Electric Folklore from Haiti (1960-1981) are heavily reliant on an insistent, propulsive percussive undercurrent on which the melodic instruments are carried. So powerful are some of these rhythmic workouts they threaten to overwhelm the assorted horns, vocalists, pianists and others focusing on melodicism. Yet with the primary function of this type of music being the facilitation of dance, these complex, interwoven rhythms deserve to come to the fore and rightly tend to relegate the melody to second tier status.
And while much of the collection at times sounds virtually indistinguishable from that of Afro-Cuban styles, there are a handful of left-field surprises the provide an utterly unique listening experience. Les Loups Noirs’ “Pele Rien” fuses the incessant Afro-Cubran rhythms with garage rock organ and a wailing saxophone, each sounding as though in a race with the other. Similarly, “Haiti Cumbia", performed by Neymour Jean Baptiste, take elements of the Colombian Cumbia and fuses them with a mixture of Afro-Cuban drumming and American jazz saxophone phrasing.
Ensemble Weber Sicot’s “Prend Courage” plays like an amalgamation of Cuban and zydeco music -- here again betraying traces of Columbian Cumbia’s influence -- filtered through an American big band circa-World War II. And given the latter’s presence on the island during its early 20th century occupation and the former’s long-standing alliance, this co-mingling of seemingly disparate styles reflects the environment of cultural cross-pollination existing within Haitian music of the second half of the last century.
“Samba Pachas No. 2” relies on an alternately reverb and fuzz-drenched guitar that would not have sounded out of place on any number of early 1960s surf records. The only betrayal of its non-American origins once again lies in its frenetic rhythmic syncopation, a trait decidedly lacking in the majority of straightforward surf instrumentals. Like many artists coopting American styles around the same time, Les Pachas du Canape Vert’s contribution retains stylistic traces of the culture in which it was created. It’s essentially the recognizable filtered through the vaguely exotic. Similarly, both Ibo Combo’s “Souffrance” and Les Shleu Shleu’s “Diable La” open with a funk/soul rhythm and riff copped directly from American soul before turning the track on its head and employing an Afro-Cuban strut. It’s a move that could well serve as a defiant statement of strong-willed cultural identity in the face of the ghosts of colonial oppression.
Similar to other so-called “world music” collections encompassing roughly the same time, Tanbou Toujou Lou in multiple instances places its own spin on Western popular styles, filtering it through a cultural diaspora rendering the music simultaneously foreign and familiar. And while these tracks in particular may not stand out as decidedly Haitian, their very existence, culled from private collections across the island nation, helps serve as a reminder of a vibrant period in the country’s musical history. Like many of its Caribbean neighbors, the music of Haiti finds its roots in West Africa but betrays the lingering influence of colonial occupation and need for escapism. That such atrocious circumstances could give rise to such vital, vibrant music is a testament to the strength of human spirit.