Mention Haitian music, and most people will think of either voodoo or Rara. That’s two stereotypical examples of Haitian music most people think of. There is, however, more to Haitian music than that. Much more. Especially during the sixties and seventies. Back then, Haiti was enjoying one of the most rich, vibrant and eclectic periods in its history. This is documented on Strut Records forthcoming compilation of Haitian music, Haiti Direct. It’s a a double album featuring twenty-seven tracks which will be released on 27th January 2014. Haiti Direct documents the musical revolution that was happening in Haiti during the sixties and seventies. Out of merengue, compas direct was born. It begat cadence rampa which begat mini-jazz and then cadence-lypso, as Haitian music reinvented itself yet again. Another vibrant period in Haitian music began. It too, is documented on Haiti Direct, which I’ll tell you about. Before that, I’ll tell you about Haiti and its music.
Before the rich musical period that Haiti Direct documents, Merengue provided the soundtrack to life in Haiti. Merengue was a hugely popular musical phenomenon. It was a traditional type of music and dance that was popular throughout Latin America. Its origins date back to the 1800s, when Spanish and African music was fused to create Merengue. Although popular throughout Latin America, both Haiti and the Dominican Republic were claiming Merengue as their national music. However, merengue is thought to have emanated in the Dominican Republic.
It was the mid-1800s when Merengue was used to described a form of music and dance. Then nearly a century later, Rafael Trujillo, the president of the Dominican Republic, known as the The Chief, decided that Merengue would be the country’s national music and dance. Between 1930 and 1961, merengue provided the soundtrack to the Dominican Republic. So did Haiti, where another controversial politician had come to power.
Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power in Haiti in 1957. He was elected Haiti’s president on a populist and black nationalist platform. Previously Papa Doc had been Haiti’s health minister, and came to power promising to improve life for the country’s middle class. They welcomed this. After all, the previous forty-two years had been turbulent. Between 1915 and 1934, America occupied Haiti. Then when the Americans left Haiti, between 1934 and 1957, there were numerous changes in government. Haiti went through one of the most turbulent periods of its political history. ironically, Papa Doc was perceived as Haiti’s saviour.
When Papa Doc came to power, his government initially, were perceived as a success. Haiti’s middle class welcomed his decision to redistribute the country’s wealth. Not only were the middle class wealthier, but they were emancipated. This however, was as good as it got.
One of the most controversial and infamous decision Papa Doc made, was establishing the Tonton Macoutes, a militia. Essentially, they were a paramilitary organisation who carried out Papa Doc’s bidding. Political opponents or dissidents were intimidated, beaten up or even murdered. Haitian’s were extorted and kidnapped by the Tonton Macoutes, who quickly, gained a reputation as Haiti’s bogeymen. They were feared and loathed by the Haitian population who ironically, had elected Papa Doc president. Meanwhile, Papa Doc set about establishing Haiti’s cultural identity.
Just like Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Papa Doc decided Haiti needed its own cultural identity. Papa Doc decided that this would be Merengue. There was a problem though, Merengue was inextricably linked to the Dominican Republic. That didn’t stop Papa Doc.
Haitians had been hearing Merengue on their radios since the early fifties. This came courtesy of La Voz Dominica, the Dominican Republic’s national radio station. Now, Papa Doc decided the whole of Haiti people should be able to hear its new national music, Merengue. Merengue and then the more experimental vodou jazz groups, including Super Jazz des Jeunes filled the airwaves. The government funded Haitian radio. So comprehensive was the radio coverage, that even parts of rural Haiti could hear the new radio station. With a captive audience, Papa Doc looked to influence the programming.
Songs praising Papa Doc filled the airwaves. So did songs praising his political ideology and the progress he was making. These songs were played during carnival time. They played their part in ensuring that Papa Doc held on to power. Strangely, many of these political songs weren’t recorded. So there’s no documentary evidence of them. However, while these songs praising Papa Doc were filling the airwaves, Haitian music was changing.
As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Haitian music had began to evolve. The same thing was happening around the world, including much of Latin America. In Haiti, Merengue was changing. Merengue bands relied less upon the brass section. Instead, they incorporated a salsa influence into their music. Then when they played live, their shows were much more extravagant. Shows were much more choreographed and lavish. They’re remembered fondly as spectacles. Despite this, a change was on its way. This new genre was known as compas direct.
The man credited with founding compass direct was Nemours Jean-Baptiste. This was in 1955, when he was rehearsing his band. One of the most important things he did, was slow the tempo down. Compas direct, which translates as direct beat, would be a broad musical church. It incorporated ballads, boleros, humour and troubadour vocals. Nemours Jean-Baptiste decided this new musical genre should reflect Haiti’s roots and colonial rhythms. Jazz, Cuban and ironically, the music of Dominican Republic influenced this new musical phenomenon, compas direct. For some people, however, compass direct wasn’t new.
Although compas direct was perceived as a new musical genre, for some people, it was merely Merengue after a musical makeover. While this is somewhat harsh, there’s some truth in this. Merengue’s influence on compass direct can’t be denied. Much had been changed though.
One of the most noticeable changes, was the slower tempo. Compas Direct was slower than merengue. The underlying rhythm was adapted, while the arrangement became much more complex. Swing was the final piece of the musical jigsaw. With a driving rhythm section and irresistible beat, Compas Direct became a musical phenomenon. It swept across the Caribbean and reached as far afield as North America and Europe. This was the first Haitian musical revolution. The next was cadence rampa.
Webert Sicot watched with interest as compas direct became a musical phenomenon. A classically trained saxophonist, he’d previously played with Ante, a marching band. In his spare time, Webert was working on a new musical genre, cadence rampa. It’s lead by the horns and has beat that’s similar to the Cuban mambo. There are similarities with however, compas direct. It has a similar delicacy and fluidity. Soon, cadence rampa was growing in popularity.
Rivalries between bands grew heated. It wasn’t uncommon for the bandleaders to insult each other in their songs. Soon, bands sprung up throughout Haiti. Two bands stood out from the rest though and feature on disc two of Haiti Direct. They’re Webert Sicot and Nemour’s Jean-Baptiste Ensemble. After just one listen to Webert Sicot’s Ambiance Cadence and Nemours Jean-Baptiste’s Ti Carole and you’ll understand why they vied for the title of King of cadence rampa. They provide two of the highlights of disc two of Haiti Direct. Backed by thousands of supporters, they vied with each other to become the most popular cadence rampa band. Ultimately, the man who invented the genre lost out. Nemour’s Jean-Baptiste was the most popular cadence rampa group. After that, Nemour’s Jean-Baptiste became one of Haiti’s most successful musicians. That’s until there was another change musical revolution.
By the mid-sixties, the days of the big bands were gone. Previously, bands numbered up to thirty musicians. Younger musicians, based around areas of Port-du-Prince began to form smaller bands. They played at house local house parties and were known as the hippie groups. This was because they wore platform shoes, bell-bottom trousers and shirts with large collars. As for the groups they played, in they were more like the American jazz bands. They’d fewer members, who played a smaller selection of instruments. The music mini-jazz groups played, was very different from much of the music being released in America.
Mini-jazz groups used less instruments than the cadence rampa and compas direct groups. Its roots can be found in compas direct though. The mini-jazz sound is based around a major instrument. So blazing saxophones and searing, electric guitars drive arrangements along. Two tracks that demonstrate this perfectly can be found on disc one of Haiti Direct. Les Vikings use the saxophone to drive Choc Vikings along. Then on the irresistible jazz-tinged and funky An Septieme a track from Les Dificiles De Petion-Ville the lead and rhythm guitars drives the arrangement along. These two tracks are two reasons why mini-jazz quickly, became the most popular musical genres in Haiti.
Just like cadence rampa, mini-jazz groups established a large, loyal following. By the early to mid seventies, groups toured throughout Haiti and enjoyed residencies in local clubs and theatres. This included Les Frères Déjean and Les Ambassadeurs’ Homenaje. They contribute two of the highlights of Haiti Direct. Both are horn driven tracks. Les Frères Déjean contribute and Les Ambassadeurs’ Homenaje A Los Ambajadores. The latter is a truly irresistible fusion of influences. Latin and Western music seamlessly unite. Although both groups were successful, without doubt one of the most successful mini-jazz artists was Tabou Combo, who contributes Ce Pas to Haiti Direct. They enjoyed success throughout Europe, North and South America. So successful were Tabou Combo, that one time, they filled New York’s Central Park and reached number one in France. Mini-jazz was popular right through until 1976, when music changed again.
In 1976, Haitian music evolved again. The mini-jazz lineup expanded. Horn sections were added to the mini-jazz bands. Many Haitian musicians had left the island. Some had settled in New York, Miami and Montreal. Others gravitated to the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Those that found work in the French islands were influenced by the local musicians. This included the Guadeloupe based group Exile One, who fused cadence and calypso, which was known as cadence-lypso. For the Haitian musicians, this was inspired. So they exported this back to Haiti, where adence-lypso provided the soundtrack to Haitian life. Soon, Haitian bands were adding horn sections and later, synths to their lineups. That was the final part in the musical revolution that’s documented on Haiti Direct, which I’ll pick some of the highlights of.
Disc one of Haiti Direct features thirteen tracks. This includes tracks from giants of Haitian music. There’s also more than a few hidden gems. These tracks were released between 1969 and 1978. Featuring contributions from Ibo Combo, Les Vikings, Bossa Combo, Ti Paris and Scorpio Universal, there’s everything from Merengue, compass direct, folk and mini-jazz on disc one of Haiti Direct. Eclectic, with an abundance of quality music, choosing just a few of the highlights of disc one won’t be easy. Here goes.
Choc Vikings is an instrumental track from Les Vikings’ 1971 second album Ca Pas Magie. This last album the group recorded in Haiti. After this, they settled in Guadeloupe and later, France, where they recorded another sixteen albums. One of the most prolific Haitian groups, Choc Vikings is a delicious Merengue that’s the perfect introduction to Les Vikings.
Ti Machine was the title-track to Les Animateurs’ 1972 album. Funky, jazz-tinged and psychedelic Ti Machine features a guitar masterclass from Marcellus Victor. It also reflects what a compas direct track sounds like. Based in Port Du Prince, Les Animateurs are one of Haitian music’s best kept secrets.
Les Fantaisistes De Carrefour prided themselves as being the people’s group. The group were founded in 1967 and enjoyed several hit singles. Panno Caye Nan Boi Chene is a track from their album Les Fantaisistes d’Haiti. Spacey, lysergic, experimental and innovative, biguine rhythms are combined with jazz, funk and Haitian music. The result is mesmeric, genre-melting fusion of musical influences.
Cochon St Antoine is a track from Ti Paris’ 1972 album Ti Paris et sa Guitare. This was the only album Ti released. By 1972, Ti was thirty-nine and had a reputation as one of the top twoubadou singers. He delivers a heartfelt and emotive vocal. Full of emotion he reminisces about the return of Haitians returning home from working abroad. With a raw, rural, folk sound, it’s deeply moving and demonstrates the eclectic nature of Haitian music.
One of the biggest bands in Haitian music was Tabou Combo. Not only did he enjoy a number one hit in France, but was so popular, that his concert in New York’s Central Park was a sell-out. Ca Pas finds Tabou Combo at their very best. A track from their 1969 mini-jazz album Haiti, this accordion driven track has a wonderful wistful, melancholy sound. Tabou Combo would enjoy an unprecedented longevity, lasting forty years. No wonder. Their music continued to evolve, incorporating funk and disco.
After the quality of disc one, disc two of Haiti Direct picks up where disc one left off. It features fourteen tracks. This includes tracks from giants of Haitian music. Among them are Nemours Jean-Baptiste andWebert Sicot Just like disc one, there’s several hidden gems. These tracks were released between 1959 and 1979. Featuring contributions from Raoul Guillaume, Ensemble Meridional Des Cayes, Trio Select, Les Frères Déjean and Djet-X. Once again, this allows the listener to hear an eclectic selection of Haitian music. It’s another eclectic and enthralling musical journey, with surprises aplenty in store. This makes choosing the highlights of disc two difficult.
Super Jazz Des Jeunes contribute one of the earliest songs on Haiti Direct. Cote Moune Yo is a track from their 1962 eponymous album, which showcases their unique brand of voudou jazz. Lead by Rene St. Aude, Super Jazz Des Jeunes fuse folk, jazz, big band and Haitian rhythms. This is a heady and potent brew, which represents Haitian music old and new.
Nemours Jean-Baptiste was one of the most influential musicians in Haitian history. Not only did he help develop compas direct, but he was the founding father of a musical genre, cadence rampa. He also lead one of the greatest cadence rampa bands. Ti Carole is proof of this. An infectiously catchy, genre-hopping track, everything from Latin, folk, jazz, Merengue and cadence rampa are thrown into the musical melting pot. Given a stir by Nemours Jean-Baptiste and the result is an irresistible call to dance.
Trio Select and Gesner Henry released their sophomore album Haiti in 1971. It featured Ensemble Select En Action, which has a much more understated sound than many of the tracks on Haiti Direct. This understated arrangement allows the impassioned, soul-baring vocal to take centre-stage. Delivered in the Cuban Son Montuno style, albeit with a Haitian take, it’s a quite beautiful song, which yet again, demonstrates the sheer eclecticism of Haitian music.
Les Ambassadeurs were one of the first mini-jazz groups. They released an album Proverbs, which features the hidden gem that’s Homenaje A Los Ambajadores. A delicious horn driven track with a needy, impassioned vocal it epitomises everything that’s good about mini-jazz.
My final choice from disc two of Haiti Direct is Webert Sicot’s Ambiance Cadence. Webert went head to head for the title of King of cadence rampa. Remarkably, he took the title from Nemours Jean-Baptiste, the genre’s founder. With music like Ambiance Cadence, which can be found on the 1979 album Contravention, that’s no surprise. It’s a joyous melange of musical genres. Latin, jazz, funk, mambo and compas direct influence Ambiance Cadence, which is without doubt the most infectiously catchy track on Haiti Direct.
During the twenty year period that Haiti Direct documents, Haitian music continued to evolve. After merengue had provided the soundtrack to Haitian life for so many years, Haitian music began to evolve. First of all, merengue gave way to compas direct. It gave birth to cadence rampa and then mini-jazz. Then as Haiti Direct draws to a close, cadence-lypso sees Haitian music evolve yet again. With Haitian music continually evolving, Haitian music never stood still. That meant it neither became stale nor boring. Instead, it was a golden period for Haitian music, as Haiti Direct proves.
No wonder. Haiti was blessed with some of the most innovative and creative musicians in its history. They fused musical genres and pushed musical boundaries to their limits. Among the musical influences that can be heard on Haiti Direct, are Cuban, funk, jazz, folk, free jazz, Haitian, Latin and psychedelia. During each song, musical influences and genres melt seamlessly into one. The result is spellbinding, captivating and enthralling. With each listen, you hear new sounds, influences and musical textures. Layer upon layer of music reveals itself. Musical subtleties, secrets and surprises gradually unfold. Other times, the music is infectiously catchy. Irresistible, it’s akin to a call to dance. You can’t help but submit to its charms. Truly, Haiti Direct is an eclectic magical musical mystery tour through Haitian music.
Compiled by Hugo Mendez, co-founder of the Sofrito record label and sound system, Haiti Direct, which will be released on 27th January 2014, shows that there’s more to Haitian music than voodoo and rara. Haiti Direct is proof of this. For anyone who thinks that Haitian music begins and ends with voodoo and rara, then Haiti Direct shows how wrong they are. There’s much more to Haitian music than that. Much more. Indeed, Haitian music is a treasure trove awaiting discovery. For anyone yet to discover the many and varied delights of Haitian music, then Haiti Direct is the perfect starting point. Haiti Direct may be your first compilation of Haitian music, but not your last.