This week we check out 10 cuts of great Haitian music, mostly from collections and especially from Tanbou Toujou Lou, a new, truly inspiring one. Haiti — next door to the Dominican Republic and part of the Hispaniola landmass that Columbus landed on in 1492, thinking he had reached India — a country once great, now poor, is the epicenter of this music. Haiti made Napoleon and France so rich that they could afford to help the U.S. win the War of Independence. Thirty years later, Toussaint l’Ouverture defeated the French, and Haiti became the first country ever to become liberated from its colonial masters. The fading grandeur of its French history is still there in the elegant colonial architecture, the hotels, the cuisine, and other things. Belle Époque groups from the 1950’s like Issa El Saieh performed in the elegant hotels back in the day, singing love songs like “Haïti” to celebrate Haiti and Haitian culture.
Haiti was besieged by H.I.V. in the 1980’s, the 2008 hurricane, the devastating 2010 earthquake, and before that, Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier, with their dreaded tonton macoutes henchmen. But you’d never know the hardships Haitians have suffered from listening to this ebullient, buoyant music. As we see in countries like Congo, some of the most joyous music comes from the most troubled countries.
A new CD inspired this show: Tanbou Toujou Lou, a collection of 19 Haitian classics from 1960-1981, ranging from meringue, kompa kreyol, and vodou jazz, to electric folklore. This jewel of a collection was produced by Vik Sohonie of New York, who researched it, curated it, and produced it in a colossal labor of love, digging up old 45 and 78 rpm sides from record stores, radio station vaults, experts, and music fans all around Haiti. He would literally go into the homes of regular folks looking for treasures. The extensive booklet gives you an idea of how much work it took to put this CD out.
Haiti has always been part of a glorious musical consortium, a combo DNA of Cuban, New Orleans, French, and of course African cultures and religion. The spiritual practice of Haitian vodou is the Haitian expression of its African heritage, just like santeria in Cuba, candomblé in Brazil, Congo Square in New Orleans. The orishas the Africans brought with them helped sustain African identity both during the hideous middle passage and on the New World plantations. The African saints are still in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil.
We begin with a new side from the Cumbancha label, Lakou Mizik, a contemporary Haitian band. We follow with the great Tabou Combo with their first big hit from the Tanbou collection. (Tabou Combo used to come to Los Angeles regularly in the 1980’s, usually performing at the Music Machine.) Following Tabou, we revisit a 1990 Haitian compilation put together by filmmaker and music nut Jonathan Demme, called Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti. The song “Rit Komesyal,” creole French for “Commercial Rhythm,” is a Haitian evergreen and is performed by Ensemble Nemours Jean-Baptiste.
Coupé Cloué is next, a great band from the 1980’s specializing in the Haitian musical style known as compas, or “Kompa Kreyol” as it’s called in Haitian creole. This music fueled dance floors in Port au Prince, Pétionville, and New York City for years, wherever there was a local Haitian population. Another driving cut from the Tanbou CD follows, from the group Shupa Shupa with “Époque Chaleur.”
The anthemic song “Haiti” from Issa El Saieh is next; Issa was the son of Palestinian immigrants who came to Haiti in the 1930’s. His music is grand and typifies Haitian music from La Belle Époque of the 1950’s. This is absolutely one of my favorite Haitian songs. Another anthemic song, “Meci Bon Dieu” (Thanks Good God) expresses gratitude; this is a song that’s been recorded many times. We get the Haitian National Radio Orchestra‘s lively version of it.
The final set begins with the contemporary band Lakou Mizik‘s recent release, then we close with two more tracks from the Rough Guide — from the Masters of Haiti and then a smooth dance-groove compas from a famous band called the Mini All Stars.
Ten cuts to celebrate Haitian music. It deserves to be better known than it is; so start with the Tanbou collection and please, please read the booklet. It is filled with fascinating music history and will enhance your listening experience. It is all just fantastic.
Below are some of the images from the Tanbou booklet. Thanks to producer Vik Sohonie, now in Bangkok probably unearthing more musical treasures, for sending these images along.
- Lakou Mizik / “Pran Ka Mwen” / Wa Di Yo / Cumbancha
- Tabou Combo / “Gislene” / Tanbou Toujou Lou / Ostinato Records
- Ensemble Nemours Jean-Baptiste / “Rit Komesyal (Commercial Rhythm)” / Konbit: Burning Rhythms Of Haiti / A&M
- Coupé Cloué / “Gacon Bôzô” / The Rough Guide to the Music of Haiti / World Music Network
- Shupa Shupa / “Epoque Chaleur” / Tanbou Toujou Lou / Ostinato Records
- Issa El Saieh et Son Orchestre / “Haiti” / The Rough Guide to the Music of Haiti / World Music Network
- L’Orchestre de la Radio National D’Haiti / “Meci Bon Dieu” / Tanbou Toujou Lou / Ostinato Records
- Lakou Mizik / “Panama’m Tonbe” / Wa Di Yo / Cumbancha
- Masters of Haiti / “Ti Chans (Pou Ayiti)” / The Rough Guide to the Music of Haiti / World Music Network
- Mini All Stars / “Tioul #3 (Pimp #3)” / The Rough Guide to the Music of Haiti / World Music Network