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Healing the Haitian Soul

The Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival strives to mend a devastated nation

Aaron Goldberg

Across the street from the shacks made of sticks, tarps and scrap metal that house thousands of earthquake survivors in downtown Port-au-Prince, the delicate sound of a tenor sax serenades a sizeable audience of music enthusiasts. This is Haiti’s international jazz festival, resurrected after an earthquake destroyed its venue city in January 2010, killing some 230,000 people and displacing some 1.4 million.

So where does a jazz festival fit into the reconstruction of a nation where 800,000 people remain homeless and threatened by a deadly cholera epidemic, their national consciousness disheartened by the undemocratic election held last November? “You can’t only take care of housing and water—all that’s really important for sure, but culture is really linked to the Haitian people,” said Milena Sandler Widmaier, who organized the festival along with her husband, drummer Joel Widmaier. “People need to be fed in the mind as well, not only in their body, but in their soul.”

The earthquake virtually halted Haiti’s fine arts scene. It destroyed the famous Saint Trinité music school and many of its instruments, and killed or maimed some of the nation’s student musicians. Major recording studios collapsed, venues closed and the parks that once hosted public concerts filled with the tarps and sticks of tent cities. The tremor also put a swift end to the fourth annual Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, which was to take place two weeks later. “People could not play, really,” said Milena. “Nobody could listen to music. It wasn’t on their minds.”

Milena and her husband became determined to revive the festival and, with support from Haiti’s Ministry of Culture and Communication, make it a symbol of Haitian resilience. Using the $25,000 that remained from the 2010 festival that didn’t take place, they gave grants to 46 musicians who had lost their homes, instruments or practice spaces in the earthquake. They secured a diverse set of venues for this year’s festival, ranging from posh hotels to public outdoor plazas, and offered free concerts in addition to invite-only and paid events. (Ticket prices peaked at $17.50 U.S.) In the end, organizers attracted appreciative audiences consisting largely of educated middle- and upper-class music lovers.

Among the estimated 8,000 attendees was 40-year-old Wooly St. Louis Jean, who began singing jazz after discovering Louis Armstrong on Joel Widmaier’s family-owned station Radio Metropole more than 10 years ago. “For me, jazz is the richest music: In improvisation there is freedom,” he said, gesturing toward the local Claude Carré Trio performing at the Haitian-American Institute in downtown Port-au-Prince. “When you see that bassist’s solo, hear the guitarist’s accompaniment, you hear their freedom.”

Those who attended the weeklong festival this February heard it from the improvisation of Carré and his accompanists, Haitian-American jazz/fusion groups Jaleb and Dizwikikara, and many others. Sharing the stage with these Haitian performers were the international artists recruited by seven foreign embassies. They included the Organik Trio, from Chile, performing their repertoire of ’60s- and ’70s-style Latin jazz, and French percussionist Mino Cinelu, who stunned an audience with his cajón handiwork. Brazilian-born Beatriz Malnic serenaded the crowd with bossa nova and received a standing ovation.

But the performance Haitian attendees will probably remember most was the opening-night set by New York pianist Aaron Goldberg, who performed with Haitian-born bassist Jonathan Michel, drummer Harvel Nakundi and saxophonist Melvin Butler. The band performed well-known Haitian songs, including the national anthem, “La Dessalinienne,” using jazz instrumentation, and drew a mostly quiet audience of elite Haitians and foreign embassy staff to cheer and sing along. “It proves a really important point about jazz,” Goldberg said. “If you learn to play jazz, you can learn anything and play with anyone and go anywhere and at least fit in with local musicians in almost any style.”

Goldberg spent the week leading up to the festival putting those words into practice, holding workshops and giving impromptu performances to eager music students around the country in a program he says was the true heart of the festival. Jazz, Goldberg explained, is warmly received in Haiti because Haitian styles are far vaster than the Carnival music that has become the nation’s calling card. “Carnival is an obvious example of how music is involved in culture,” the pianist said. “But even just in daily life, anyone who can afford to have a little walkman or iPod is walking around with little headphones in his ear. There’s music coming from the radio in every car.”

To be fair, most of that music is foreign pop favorites, Haitian reggaeton and kompa, a Haitian style that grew out of méringue. Still, jazz’s freely expressive nature has indeed captivated many of Haiti’s most promising musicians. During a workshop on the afternoon before his performance, Goldberg encountered a powerful young singer named Kephny Eliacin and invited him to sit in on “Satin Doll” with the band that evening. The crowd, recognizing a true Haitian jazzman in its midst, went wild.

Perhaps the festival’s success should be measured by its ability to carry Haitian listeners away from tragedy and into a blissful, if temporary, respite, said drummer Johnbern Thomas, part of Claude Carré’s trio. “Jazz is a kind of music that helps people forget about their past,” he said. “It’s a real spiritual thing. When you’re praying, you’re praying to forget, to cope.”

But forgetting the past is not the same as ignoring the present, pointed out St. Louis Jean, as he listened to Thomas solo from the stage across from the downtown tent camp. Rather, the festival represents a small part of the enormous process of reconstructing Haiti—both its bodies and its souls. “Jazz is an important thing, but across the street there is tragedy—people on the streets, no houses. You can’t forget the people across the street.”

Originally Published