Writer and musician Thomas Rees travels to one of the Caribbean’s most underrated destinations to meet the vodou singers, self-titled Haitian punks and innovative young producers shaping Haiti’s unsung music scene. Listen to Thomas talk about his experiences on our podcast.
It’s the frantic rhythms of the tambou that catch my ear, ceremonial drums shattering the evening silence. Then chant-like vocals and blaring trumpets that draw me from the seafront, through a yard scattered with half-formed carnival masks and mounds of shredded paper, to the upstairs room of a rambling house.
There, in the half-light, a group of musicians are beginning to play. Facing them, a troupe of dancers lunge and leap in time with the music, hurling their shadows against the walls and throwing their heads back, letting out shrieks and wolf cries. As the intensity builds, one dancer breaks off from the group in a whirling vortex of limbs and flings his sweat-slicked torso at the floorboards, writhing like a man possessed.
I’ve been in Jacmel, a town on Haiti’s southern coast, for all of an hour and I’ve already found what I’m looking for. If this were anywhere else I’d call it luck, but in Haiti there’s music wherever you go.
This beleaguered Caribbean nation is home to one of the world’s richest and most distinctive music scenes, and yet it’s seldom talked about outside of the country and the Haitian diasporas of cities such as New York, Miami and Montreal.
Haiti’s woes, above all the devastating earthquake of 2010, have cast a long shadow over its culture, and visitors to the country are still few and far between. But when the world wakes up, Haiti will be ready.
Here, three of the country’s leading musicians shed light on a scene characterised by deep roots, wondrous variety and restless ambition.
Erol Josué is a difficult man to pin down. After a string of messages and abortive phone calls (“Oui Thomas, but call me back in an hour, I’m preparing myself to meet the president”), I finally manage to catch him, at the Bureau National d’Ethnologie in downtown Port-au-Prince. As a houngan (vodou priest), singer, dancer and director of the museum, Josué is a leading expert on vodou and its fiercest champion.
“Vodou is the most important culture in Haiti,” he tells me, as he recounts the origins of the religion, a fusion of West African beliefs brought to Haiti by the slaves, with the Catholicism of their 18th-century colonial masters. It’s been under threat for centuries, demonised by missionaries and distorted by Hollywood, something Josué describes as an act of “identity terrorism”.
Music lies at the heart of vodou practice. “Through vodou music we can summon spirits called lwa, to talk to us, to bring us messages,” Josué explains, describing the same hypnotic vocals and drum patterns I heard in Jacmel.
“Those rhythms lie at the heart of all Haitian music,” he continues. “And those songs are like an oral Bible. They tell the whole story of Haiti – the story of the native Taino Amerindians, of European colonialism, of slavery and independence. They give us power and help us to understand where we come from.”
As we wander amongst the mango trees and broken statues in the museum’s gardens, Josué discusses Pelerinaj (Pilgrimage), his latest project, a recording and accompanying book. It’s inspired by vodou music tradition, his life as a houngan and his travels throughout Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. It’s been ten years in the making – and it’s almost ready.
“I’ve been working too long to just do an album,” he says. “This music is about research, anthropology, society… I call it a proposition.”
It rains the following night. As I make my way to the Hotel Oloffson, the roads become rivers swimming with flotsam and the blurred reflections of headlights. Dogged tap-taps sputter and lurch, water streaming from their wheel arches.
The Oloffson is best known as the real-life inspiration for the Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s The Comedians, but I’m here to see RAM, a rock and roots band whose Thursday night residency has become the stuff of Haitian music legend.
It’s a strange crowd. The rain has put most people off. A gaggle of NGO workers, blind drunk on rum punch, flail and dad-dance across the floorboards. But the band still play a storm, mixing yowling rock guitar riffs and skanking grooves with kreyòl vocals and vodou drums. I’m mesmerised by the band’s two percussionists, who periodically drop their metal scrapers to grab clutches of konet (blarty vuvuzelas made from beaten metal), used in a riotous Haitian street style called rara. It’s the sound of technicoloured chaos and unbridled joy distilled into music.
Bandleader Richard Morse, a towering Haitian-American with a tangled ponytail of grey dreadlocks, moved to Haiti in 1985 and spent five years putting the group together.
“People thought I was crazy,” he tells me, when we meet in a Pétion-Ville bar the next day. But RAM have since become one of Haiti’s best loved groups. Their fusion of vodou tradition with African, Caribbean and North American influences has come to epitomise the eclecticism and ingenuity of modern Haitian music.
“We use ceremonial rhythms and street rhythms, but we mix things up,” Morse explains as he discusses the group’s new album, their seventh, due for release this year. “Who sang God Save The Queen? The Sex Pistols? We’re that kind of band.”
“You’re rebels? The Haitian punks?”, I ask.
“We’re the ones that say the king is naked,” he snorts, referring to the metaphor-cloaked political content of many of RAM’s songs. “The Emperor’s New Clothes. That’s who we are.”
I ask what excites him about making music in Haiti and he gives me another cryptic answer. “I don’t know how else to put it. When I was growing up, Jesus Christ seemed ancient. Just the thought of 2000 years! Now he seems recent.
“Music is limitless,” he muses. “It’s eternal. There’s always more.”
In the last few years, Haiti’s urban music scene has exploded. On street corners across the country you’ll find posses of teenagers gathered around boomboxes blasting Haitian hip-hop (rap kreyòl) and raboday, a mix of racing beats, pounding basslines, synthesised hooks and lairy hype-man vocals. Big name DJs, such as Tony Mix, draw huge crowds and there are hundreds of ambitious young producers bidding to write the next smash hit.
The most important date in the electronic music calendar is carnival and the month-long build-up, when convoys of speaker-mounted flatbed trucks carrying DJs trundle around the Champ Mars, Port-au-Prince’s main square. Pushing through crowds so thick there are times my feet just graze the ground, I climb the rickety wooden ladder to the top of a float, where DJ Bullet is blasting his carnival banger, silhouetted by the blue-white glow of his laptop. Diesel fumes and volleys of synthesised claxon fill the air. The bass is so heavy it makes the buildings shake.
On my final night in Haiti, I watch Michael Brun, a 25-year-old producer, close PAPJazz, one of the country’s biggest music festivals. The site is the Royal Decameron, a popular resort on an idyllic stretch of coastline north of Port-au-Prince. In the final number, rara band Lakou Mizik and vocalist Steeve Valcourt, bound onto the stage to perform their collaborative hit, Gaya – a blend of clattering percussion, club beats and blaring rara horns.
Brun, who was born in Port-au-Prince but lives in Miami, is one of Haiti’s few breakout stars. Since releasing his debut EP, Gravity, in 2013, he’s picked up a World Music Award nomination for Best EDM Artist, remixed tracks for Calvin Harris and Alicia Keys, and played Coachella. In the process, he’s positioned himself as an ambassador for Haiti’s unsung music scene, using his success to help other musicians increase their exposure.
“There are so many amazing artists around,” Brun tells me when we meet before the gig, “and we all have the goal to bring the culture to the world. I think the rawness [of Haitian music] is really exciting. The fact that a lot of it is uncharted territory. The mixes are unconventional, the lyrics, the melodies. And it’s so much about feel. That’s what drew me to it.”
He reminisces about a childhood steeped in Haitian sounds, following rara bands through the streets of Port-au-Prince, listening to compas dance music on the radio and dabbling in production following the rise of the internet.
“When I realised that I can combine electronic music and hip hop and Haitian music and it sounds like it was made to fit together… ” he grins and shakes his head. “I was working so long to figure that out, so I was respectful and it made sense. It was a celebration of culture.”
Brun’s new album, Bayo, due for release in February 2018, features a raft of collaborations with under-the-radar Haitian artists and overseas stars soon to be revealed.
“The first song is rap kreyòl, fused with rabòday, fused with traditional vodou rhythms, fused with electronic music,” he tells me with a grin. “I know that sounds like a lot of things, but it flows and I’m so proud of it.”
“This is a special moment for Haitian music,” he says, as he heads back to his dressing room. “I’ve been working with artists all over the world. They all get it and that’s the go sign for me… Bayo means to give: to give your all. I feel like Haitians are ready to do that.”
Photos from left–right (top–bottom): Delpixel / Shutterstock; Lucky Vectorstudio / Shutterstock; Erol Josué by Thomas Rees; RAM by Daniel Morel; RAM by Daniel Morel; Josué Azor / Courtesy PAPJazz; Michael Brun by Steven Baboun; Michael Brun by Amanacer.