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.