Though relentlessly hammered by political and economic unrest and equally ferocious weather, Haiti has managed to foster a vibrant jazz community; its deeply layered homegrown rhythms, generally known as Creole jazz, blend regional, African and American influences. Among the music’s foremost practitioners is vocalist and composer Pauline Jean, with her espresso-dark, dulce de leche-smooth contralto and story-weaving elan.
Jean’s debut album, 2009’s A Musical Offering, comprised mostly covers of American standards. Her self-produced sophomore release is aptly titled: Nwayo is the Haitian-Creole word meaning the hard center of a piece of fruit, and this album gets to the very core of her native sound. Alongside various members of the Haitian All-Star Jazz Band—including drummer Obed Calvaire, trumpeter Jean Caze, saxophonist Godwin Louis and bassist Jonathan Michel—plus stellar pianist Alex Tosca Laugart and two outstanding percussionists, Jean Mary Brignol and Danish-born Markus Schwartz, Jean ventures just once into the Great American Songbook, for a tender “I’m in the Mood for Love.” Eight other tracks shape a panoply of communal history, traditions and sentiments, ranging from the nature-celebrating children’s anthem “Ti Zwazo Koté ou Pralé?” to tales of horror, hardship and endurance. Among the lattermost are two extraordinarily powerful pieces. “Igbo Landing” poignantly recalls Nigeria’s Igbo tribe who, Haiti-bound to serve as slaves at the dawn of the 19th century, sacrificed themselves off the southern U.S. coast. The impassioned “Their Blood, Bondye,” crafted in collaboration with poet and novelist Edwidge Danticat, powerfully recalls centuries of struggle that have helped define Haiti’s indomitable spirit.