In the lead-up to the 2015 Ghetto Biennale, held in December of 2015 in Port-au-Prince, I wanted to create as much programming around the Haitian diaspora as possible, both literally to transmit to Port-au-Prince the level of connection many long-term USA-resident Haitians still feel with relation to their culture, and to bring Clocktower listeners into the project.
At about midnight on J’Ouvert night, the eve of Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade, I found a growing crowd and the instruments of rara arrayed in a circle on the ground: bamboos, konet, scrapers and drums. Several hundred people were milling about waiting for Djarara to begin to play, an assembly that quickly swelled into the thousands as they started marching toward the heavily policed gates of the park. General Dadou of Djarara invited me to his home for an interview that helps give context to the music.
There are a number of Haitians and Haitian-Americans working in the domain of electronic and dance music. Richard Laurent, aka Kraze/Mounfou, aka Earthman, is pioneering figure in New York house. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, and I was thrilled to reconnect with him and interview him about his many musical projects extending from the present day all the way back to his early teenage years in the early 1908s, when he fronted a konpa band.
Michelange Quay is a filmmaker, electronic musician, artist and hypnotist who fuses vodou rhythms with Chicago footwork-style beats. He pointed out in our interview that most electronic dance music is a 4-on-the-floor drum pattern, and that it was only when he discovered the radically exploded patterns within footwork music that he heard something that resonated with the complex polyrhythms of Haitian vodou drumming.
Val Jeanty’s work was new to me, but she blessed the Radyo Shak project with a stunning live performance in the Clocktower studios, blending and scratching Haitian snippets drawn not only from vodou but also from kreyol-language records and field recordings.
I was also inspired myself to come out of retirement and DJ two sets of troubadour music, a spectacular and under-recorded genre of Haitian patio party music, which shares its mood and themes with the blues, and with bachata. Here’s one. And here’s the other.
Once in Port-au-Prince, on one of our first evenings as an operational radio station, we hosted the twoubadou group Twouba Eden Fel for an in-Shak performance and a concert in the Atis Rezistans lakou. Awash with feedback and reverb and drunken singing, this is a glorious two-part deep-dive into the live troubadour ambiance of a Haitian street party.
The Parisian musician Jackson Thélémaque, originally from Fond-des-Negres, Haiti, gave a beautiful, multi-layered improvisational performance, using just an electric guitar and a looping pedal. These are vodou-influenced tunes deeply infused with electric blues.
Patrick Derival, drummer, and Wilson Bonhomme, singer, sat in and demonstrated some of the rhythms and songs of vodou.
I was honored to record, in MS Stereo, the Rara musicians Tom Bogaert organized to perform Sun Ra’s “Rocket #9” for his project, Sun Ra Ra.
Haitians make music of all shapes and sizes and descriptions, which is why I was pleased that the St. Trinité Music School’s Bernadette Williams brought a string quartet to play classical arrangements of several traditional Haitian tunes, despite the heat and dust inside the Shak.
Another definite highlight of the Shak project was having Stuart Baker of London’s Soul Jazz Records stop by on two occasions and play some selections from his personal archive. His first program was almost entirely devoted to Afro-Caribbean music with a profoundly spiritual feeling and purpose, including pieces from the liturgical canon of vodoun, santería, palo monte and the Garifuna people of Belize. His second ranged more widely, including California punk and Chicago house as well as pan-Caribbean goodies.
In a similar vein, I deejayed two selections of Haitian cuts from some great orchestras of the 1960s and 70s that had been generously digitized for us by an anonymous collector friend who has a vast arsenal of African and latin tunes.
There was no shortage of deejays, though, and every afternoon the yard outside the Shak became a spontaneous dance party, as we hosted local talent like DJ Clifford Bawon and DJ Sanparey, aka Love Leonce. The DJ formerly known as Bwa Pen, from the Carrefour neighborhood, showed off some of his amazing remixes.
The director of the writer’s retreat at the PEN center of Haiti, Jean-Euphèle Milcé, stopped by and talked about the pressures of corruption on free expression in the local community of writers.
Vodou-roots rockstar and hotel proprietor Richard Morse interviewed Ghetto Biennale co-founder Andre Eugene in kreyol.
We hosted a Poetry Slam.
Local houngan Papada created a veve for Legba on the ground in front of the doorway to the Shak. This ceremonious affair, a kind of commissioned good-luck invocation to the spirit who is the guardian of the crossroads, was initially almost silent, so to my later embarrassment, I narrated the proceedings in full-on visiting ethnographer documentary voice-over style.
The series of recipes that we collected via live radio broadcast have their own page, transcribed and ready for your next culinary experiment.
The radical, musical NGO Konbit Mizik came through and talked about what they do They brought a rapper, and a Haitian Bob Dylan, to perform for us.
The artist Lazaros explained the importance of superstition to his work.
Casseus Claudel, artist, author and member of the Ghetto Biennale curatorial team talked in kreyol about the production challenges of the Biennale.
and last, alphabetically, but not least, Zeal Harris follows in the footsteps of Zora Neale Hurston.