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Jazz in Post-Earthquake Haiti

(Re)building a Musical Culture

Audience members at the fine arts MWVA club in Jarbacoa, Dominican Republic, applaud Thomas during a performance in June 2010
Haitian drummer Johnbern Thomas mixes Haitian percussion rhythms with the Latin jazz that his Dominican band members play
Johnbern Thomas, Haitian jazz musician
Cafe des Artes in Port-au-Prince's Petionville neighborhood is the only venue hosting regular jazz performances
The Claude Carre Trio performs for a small audience at Cafe des Artes in Port-au-Prince in August 2010
Haiti's premier jazz instructor Claude Carre holds a well-attended jazz seminar for music students in Port-au-Prince on October 2, 2010
Haiti's premier jazz instructor Claude Carre holds a well-attended jazz seminar for music students in Port-au-Prince on October 2, 2010

On a rainy Sunday night in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, jazz instructor Claude Carre sits down with his guitar on a small stage alongside two of his students, playing drums and bass. The audience of 15 or so wealthy Haitians and foreigners at Café des Artes don’t seem to notice when the house music gives way to the sounds of Carre and his trio playing a soft acoustic number.

Ever since the 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti last January -leaving some 230,000 people dead and displacing 1.3 million more to tent cities-Haiti’s musicians have struggled harder than ever to find audiences. In addition to the immediate human suffering, the earthquake also put a long-term dent in Haiti’s fine arts culture, including its delicate jazz scene.

“I don’t know if after that, the jazz scene is going to expire,” Carre said. “Now I’m really the only band playing jazz, because the other group is not playing. And I only have a trio-I cannot find a wind player.”

Haiti’s Jazz History

It wasn’t always so.

Before the earthquake of January 12th, jazz was a small but vibrant art in Haiti, with two dedicated jazz groups and a handful of bands that dabbled. Though its reach was usually limited to a handful of cafes and bars in the wealthier Petionville neighborhood above Port-Au-Prince, local jazz musicians began to introduce their craft to the masses through an annual international jazz festival and outdoor concerts in public parks.

“I used to play for the wealthy, the so-called intellectually advanced, and they were sitting without reaction,” Carre said. “But when I go to the countryside and I play for all the people that are not supposed to be so educated, I got a very warm welcome with people applauding every solo we take, and they are reacting when the music is good.”

Although jazz has never been mainstream in Haiti, it has existed in niche circles ever since a man named Herbie Widmaier introduced it on his father’s Port-Au-Prince radio station in the 1950’s. “We were chosen as a radio station to represent the United Nations, to rebroadcast certain programs. They used to send to us all kinds of recordings,” recalls Widmaier. “That’s where I received transcriptions, big band records-Duke Ellington, Count Basie. All that you could hear at the time was top jazz musicians, black and white.”

When Widmaier opened his own station in 1970-now Radio Metropol-his very first program was a jazz show called “Ten to Eleven,” which he continues to host to this day. Back then, Widmaier featured Haitian musicians by the names of Guy Durosier and Gerald Merceron, who had begun arranging and recording their own styles of jazz.

“After 1986 when the Duvaliers (dictators) left Haiti, there was this period of time where the Haitian folk rhythms, like Rasin, which we call roots music, started to evolve,” said Herbie’s son Richard Widmaier, who also DJs a jazz program on Radio Metropol. “That’s what is really Haitian. It’s not even African.”

Richard Widmaier says that sound has changed over the past two decades. “The rhythm structure can be anything, it can be Haitian, from Rasin, it could be a mixture of Rasin and Kompas. What remains jazz is the modern harmonies and of course improvisation on the music. It’s a blend of tropical sounds.”

At least, that’s what jazz sounded like in Haiti before 4:53pm on January 12th, 2010. Although most jazz musicians and enthusiasts here say the earthquake didn’t damage Haiti’s jazz scene in the long run, there’s no denying the challenges it created for Port-Au-Prince’s music culture. Cafes that used to host jazz and other Haitian music closed, and the owner of the up and coming jazz culture hangout Jazz’s was murdered in the aftermath. Even the parks that once hosted occasional public jazz concerts became immediately filled with the blue and grey tarps of tent cities.

Most devastating to Haiti’s long term musical aspirations was the destruction of the St. Trinité music school, where many of Haiti’s jazz artists received their first formal musical education. Worse than the destruction of the building itself and numerous instruments inside, a number of young musicians who studied there were killed in the earthquake.

Boost from abroad

It was into this scene that N.Y. pianist Aaron Goldberg arrived, five months after the earthquake.

By no means an outsider, Goldberg has been involved in Haitian jazz ever since he stumbled upon Haiti’s international jazz festival while on a visit here in January 2009.

“American jazz itself has a long history in Haiti dating all the way back to the American military occupation from 1915-1940, and over the years many great Haitian musicians have been influenced by exposure to American jazz,” says Goldberg. “The syncretic nature of Haitian jazz is its most distinctive factor, melding North American and Caribbean, African traditions. It has a deep-rooted connection to Haitian folk and religious musical forms, both Kompas and Vudu-based rhythms.”

Goldberg returned to Haiti in June to perform a series of free jazz concerts and workshops in cafes, camps, hotels and other venues around Port-Au-Prince. “One of the results of the earthquake was that bands, even local bands, were largely too traumatized financially, psychologically and logistically to perform,” Goldberg says. “I was surprised to discover that many Haitians were literally starved for music, especially live music. We were there in the spirit of the blues–to bring hope in tough times, to help people re-embrace life.”

The NY-PAP Jazz Alliance joined with local artists to play jazz interpretations of Haitian songs and mix Haitian rhythms into American jazz standards. Goldberg said he was initially hesitant to perform in Haiti, avoiding the naivety that foreign jazz could somehow help Haiti recoup. But after being encouraged by the Haitian musicians here to go ahead, Goldberg said the trip met unexpected success. “Everywhere we went I felt a very strong sense that we were needed–not as jazz musicians per se but as musicians.”

An uncertain future

Despite encouragement from Americans, the future of Haiti’s jazz scene will be determined by the number of young Haitian musicians who become exposed to and take interest in the sound. “There are a lot of good musicians here, but they lack education-musical education,” says Claude Carre. “But they are very willing to learn, and they are very interested in jazz music. So if those musicians from abroad start to come here, maybe in five or ten years we will have a lot of Haitian groups playing jazz.”

Equally challenging is finding Haitians who want to embrace a music that seems neither native nor culturally comfortable. Throughout most of the country, Haitians listen to Konpas, with rhythms slower than meringue, and Mizik Rasin, a mix of African-influenced Vudu/roots sounds with rock n roll or reggae.

“The hardest thing is that when you play jazz, people say, ‘oh, you play only jazz?'”, explains Carre. “I say jazz is a big music, a vast music, but sometimes they don’t understand because people like to dance. The music here is for dancing. So when you start asking people to sit and to listen, this is difficult. We have to do something special to make them sit and listen.”

Haiti’s few jazz musicians typically play American standards and Latin jazz. Sometimes they use traditional Haitian and African styles to mix their sounds. But most of these musicians are not so much jazz connoisseurs as members of reggae, rock or House/Vudu groups that learned a couple of jazz numbers on the side.

Louis “Paluto” Patrick is a keyboard player in once such group. His band Voyage plays a mix of jazz, roots and reggae house music. After hearing a performance by a jazz group a few years back, Paluto invited some friends to start a group to imitate that sound. “I found something special in jazz because they have a mistake thing, where the rhythm is very special,” Paluto said.

Paluto doesn’t know who Claude Carre is, and he’s never been to Haiti’s international jazz festival. He says that for some, jazz helps cope with the stress that often accompanies life in a difficult nation. “You have to play music so that people can get passed the stress. Because after the earthquake, too many people were confused.”

For Calude Carre, getting past that confusion means continuing his work as a musical educator. Carre began studying jazz around 1995, attending a National Guitar Workshop in Connecticut, then returning to St. Louis two years later for a series of jazz-guitar seminars. He has performed internationally in Japan and Martinique, and although he’s never recorded a full album, his compositions are occasionally played on Radio Metropol and another Port-Au-Prince station.

Carre estimates that he’s mentored around 100 students in his career, many of whom, like the drummer Johnbern Thomas, have gone on to perform internationally. You wouldn’t know jazz in Port-au-Prince is struggling by the 50 or so music students who showed up to a free seminar Carre put on earlier this month. Musicians of all ages shot questions at Carre as he taught them jazz riffs, and some brought their instruments to improvise a bit with the nation’s go-to jazz instructor.

The sight of that excited audience of music enthusiasts is hard to reconcile with the Sunday night scene at Café des Artes, watching Carre pack up his instruments in relative silence as the dwindling audience continues conversing over drinks.

Haiti’s performing jazz scene has, for the time being, been reduced to Carre’s own trio at a single Café-and, as he laments, without a wind player. But as Port-Au-Prince’s venues and curious music students recover from the earthquake, and as Haiti’s International Jazz Festival makes a comeback next January, jazz is unlikely to remain buried in Haiti for long.

“During the year, we have to fight a lot to find a place to play, and to find people to come to listen,” says Carre. “But we are not discouraged. We want to promote this music because we think it is good for Haiti.”

Originally Published