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The Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival: A Triumph in Haiti

Against all odds in a devastated country, the latest edition of the festival went on as planned

Paul Beaubrun and Yilian Cañizares
Paul Beaubrun (left) and Yilian Cañizares at the 2020 Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

On January 10, 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck Haiti, destroying much of its capital city, Port-au-Prince. Ten years later, with two traffic lights in a city of over a million, and a staggering gap between the 1% and 99%, this resilient Caribbean nation—the first to claim its independence—is still struggling to recover and rebuild, suffering from widespread corruption and a sense of powerlessness to bring about change. But at least one positive thing has remained consistent here for the past decade: the Port-au-Prince (PAP) Jazz Festival.

The festival’s latest edition, which ran from January 18 to 25, 2020, was a testament to organizational skill, creative artistic direction, and the sheer resourcefulness required to host an event in a city beset by ongoing political instability, social unrest, and extreme poverty. It seemed uncertain, until the very last moment, if it would indeed take place. And yet, despite several artists’ cancellations and the loss of significant sponsorships, PAP Jazz and the Haiti Jazz Foundation managed to pull it off, presenting an intriguing program and stellar talent, both local and international, without a discernible hitch. On opening night, and throughout the well-attended festival, there was a spirit of true elation.

“We never really considered canceling the festival,” said Milena Sandler, the festival’s GM. “We were mainly concerned about being able to pay the artists, and wanted to make sure it was safe. When the ‘pause’ started in December, after a devastating autumn—three months when riots [protesting the corrupt government of President Jovenel Moïse] were raging, schools were shut down, many businesses closed or downsized, and people could barely leave their homes—we knew it was really important for us to give the people the joy we can now see in their eyes.” While opening and closing nights were ticketed events, the majority of the concerts were offered to the public free of charge, all venues heavily guarded.

Award-winning Montreal chanteuse Ranee Lee kicked off the festival’s all-female first night, in a performance sponsored by the Canadian embassy (foreign government sponsorships facilitate the participation of international artists in the festival). Lee enchanted the audience with her renditions of Miles Davis’ “Four,” Pat Metheny’s “A Crooked Road” and “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables, drawing a standing ovation. Virtuosic Cuban violinist/singer/composer Yilian Cañizares followed with material from her new album Erzulie (a reference to the Vaudou spirit of Love), embracing the African heritage and culture of her ancestors with a decidedly modern approach. Having performed at the festival in 2017 and collaborated with local musicians, Cañizares welcomed renowned Haitian guitarist Paul Beaubrun to join her scorching band, featuring bassist Childo Tomas, drummer Marque Gilmore, and percussionist Inor Sotolongo. Together they shone on material ranging from the fiery “Cimarron” to the tender “Noyé.”


NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater took the stage for the night’s final performance. A Goodwill Ambassador for the UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), Bridgewater was profoundly affected by her visit to Port-au-Prince, and called the festival “an eye-opening gateway” to the humanitarian work she would like to do here. “I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the devastation from the earthquake and hurricanes that have ravaged the city and its surrounding areas in recent years,” she told JazzTimes. “I have been so moved by the country’s resilient human spirit in spite of the adversities it faces … I’m now in talks with a UNESCO representative to this end, and intend to reach out to the FAO to see what can be done.” She clearly connected with the PAP crowd, vocalizing a muted trumpet solo on Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” and visibly delighting in her accompanists: drummer Kush Abadey, bassist Tabari Lake, and pianist Carmen Staaf, who is also the band’s musical director.

Carmen Staaf and Dee Dee Bridgewater
Carmen Staaf (left) and Dee Dee Bridgewater at the 2020 Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

In preparation for her trip to Port-au-Prince, Staaf enlisted to assist Experience Ayiti, a nonprofit whose mission is to facilitate cultural exchange between Haiti and the world through music and education, fostering empowerment and sustainability. The organization was founded in 2016 by Haitian drummer Johnbern Thomas and keyboardist Jhonson François, together with two Haitian-American musicians, saxophonist Godwin Louis and vocalist Pauline Jean. Staaf collected some gear (bass strings, drum sticks, a guitar pedal) and a few small instruments (triangles, tambourines, a recorder) to bring to Haiti; they were distributed to music students at a workshop organized by the American embassy in partnership with the festival, Haiti Jazz Promo (created by Thomas to promote Kreyòl jazz among young Haitian artists), and Experience Ayiti.

Thomas, one of the most gifted, versatile, and creative artists in Port-au-Prince, performed several times during the festival. Prominent in many of the jam sessions, he also accompanied Haitian singer/guitarist BélO, and played a set with Dutch pianist Mike del Ferro at Quartier Latin on closing night. (Thomas’ performance with Spanish harmonicist Antonio Serrano was canceled by the Spanish embassy due to its logistic inability to offer the band adequate security; other cancellations included Chilean guitarist/singer Camila Meza, French accordionist Vincent Peirani, and vocalist Lisa Simone, whose performances were canceled due to the French embassy’s travel advisory.)

“I congratulate Milena [Sandler] and Joël [Widmaier, PAP’s artistic director] for all their hard work,” Thomas told JT. “It’s really hard, considering the political situation, to not only keep the festival going, but to make it better and better every year. This festival gives us musicians an opportunity to explore our talent in front of different audiences, and also meet other musicians in a cultural exchange, which is amazing.”


Such cultural cross-pollination seems to have been one of PAP’s main goals this year. Haitian pianist Mushi Widmaier held a free-flowing exchange with del Ferro, whose two originals “Le Tango” and “Idrobas” opened their set, followed by Widmaier’s arrangements of Haitian folk street music: “Kote Moun Yo” (Where Are the People) and “Ti Sourit” (Little Mouse) by conga player and singer Lénord “Azor” Fortuné. The Encuentro project—Spanish for “meeting”—brought together Haitian pianist Reginald Policard, whose style mixes konpa with Latin jazz, and Cuban pianist Alejandro Falcón, known for fusing danzòn with Afro-Cuban rhythms. The two shared the stage with musicians from both countries, creating inspired Caribbean jazz. Québécoise trumpeter Rachel Therrien performed standards and originals with three talented Haitian artists: Josue Alexis on keys, David Casseus on bass, and Norman Imeran on drums. And, returning to the festival for a second time, Israeli drummer/composer Yogev Shetrit presented HAITISRAEL, playing his North African-infused music accompanied by local musicians.

“I met [Haitian bassist] Steve Cinéus at an Expo in Kazakhstan in 2017,” Shetrit recalled. “We stayed in touch, and after last year’s performance at the festival, we decided to create this project with his brother Nathanael on piano and Marc-Harold Pierre on percussion.” Fusing contemporary jazz with Jewish and Mediterranean music and the traditional North African rhythms of Shetrit’s Moroccan heritage, the group played material from his three recordings, including the newly released Serenity. Guest Ricardo Lafond shone on saxophone, quoting “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” on the leader’s “African Desert.” Shetrit made a point of incorporating Haitian music into the set; “Agwé,” a traditional Haitian song dedicated to the loa (spirit) who rules over the seas, arranged by Nathanael Cinéus, was immediately recognized by the audience. “Mwen renmen ou!” (I love you), Shetrit exclaimed in Haitian Kreyòl. “There is so much talent here!”

Lamy Shalomson and Yogev Shetrit
Haitian saxophonist Lamy Shalomson (left) and Yogev Shetrit at a Café 36 jam session during the 2020 Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Night two featured American a cappella group Take 6, Martinique pianist Mario Canonge, and Pat Appleton of the downtempo jazz ensemble De-Phazz. A versatile singer of mixed German-Liberian descent, Appleton is one of the most prominent voices on the German contemporary jazz scene. Her spirited performance and dynamic interaction with keyboardist Matti Klein on Wurlitzer and (sans bass player) Fender Rhodes piano bass and Lars Zander on sax and bass clarinet had the audience fully engaged.


Haiti Gospel Jazz, created by the festival specifically for this 14th edition under the skilled artistic direction of bassist Gérald Kébrau, presented two prominent local voices: Wiliadel Denervil, well-recognized within the Haitian gospel community, and Taliana, a singer/evangelist blending gospel, blues, country, and jazz. Hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” were enrapturing.

On January 22, hundreds of people packed the courtyard of Quisqueya University to witness one of Haiti’s national treasures, vocalist James Germain, deliver a soul-stirring performance of traditional Haitian music. The well-crafted set gradually increased in intensity: Germain began in duet with pianist del Ferro, then invited his guests to join the stage. First came singer Malou Beauvoir for “Papa Danbala,” a traditional tune composed by Raoul Guillaume, one of the pillars of Haitian folk music. Trumpeter Therrien joined next, her seamless contribution attesting to her range and versatility. Finally, the Fokal choir and rara horns and percussion came in, taking this spirit music to an ethereal realm.

Malou Beauvoir and James Germain
Malou Beauvoir (left) and James Germain at the 2020 Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

The following night, BélO raised spirits with his unique ragganga style—a combination of reggae, ragga, blues, jazz, and traditional Vaudou and rara rhythms. On January 24, Boukan Ginen, led by the inimitable Eddy François, rocked the same stage with his earthshaking brand of mizik rasin (roots music) on anthems such as “Lakay” (Home), “Jou a Rive” (The Day Has Come), and the emotive “Tande Kria Yo” (Listen to Their Cries). It seemed the entire crowd, an estimated 1,000 people, sang along, united in the message of peace and unity.


Closing night was as diverse as the entire program. Young saxophonist Jazmin Ghent, prominent on the smooth jazz scene, played the first set, engaging the audience in call-and-response on “Better” and encouraging us all to show more honesty, integrity, compassion, and humanity. Guadeloupe-born saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart presented his Hazzan project, an interpretation of Jewish liturgical chants integrating improvisation and rhythms from the African diaspora (Schwarz-Bart is of both Jewish and black descent). Featuring a formidable band—American drummer Ari Hoenig, Israeli bassist Or Bareket, Martinique native Grégory Privat on piano, and vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, an American of mixed Haitian-Québécois heritage—Hazzan resonated with the enthusiastic audience, which insisted on an encore.

The festival’s final concert was delivered by Montreal-based singer/songwriter Dawn Tyler Watson, gladly welcoming the opportunity to replace Lisa Simone. One of Canada’s premier blues singers, Watson captivated the audience with her magnetic stage presence, supported by a sizzling band fronted by guitarist Ben Racine. (At the jam session the previous night, she had also dazzled with her take on Pee Wee Ellis’ iconic funk tune “Chicken,” to which she wrote her own lyrics.) Interacting with the audience in French, Watson commented on the quality of musical talent she encountered in Port-au-Prince, both on stages and in her clinic earlier in the week. Watson was one of the artists offering free workshops to aspiring young musicians—an opportunity the festival has offered since its inception, and which is in dire need here, where music education is so scarce.

“The quality of musicianship is some of the best I’ve seen in the world,” she later told JT. “One of the attendants thanked me, saying how badly the people of Haiti need this right now. I’d love to come back and work with them, to lift some of the heaviness. Music does that; it’s the place where they can express everything—their pain, their faith, their joy. And they’ve got a lot to say.”

Originally Published

Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer and editor. A music journalist since 2001, she has contributed to publications including JazzTimes, DownBeat, OkayPlayer, VICE/Noisey, Afropop Worldwide, The Revivalist, and La Scena Musicale; her articles are often accompanied by her photographs.