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#5232: Global Ear - Port-au-Prince (fwd)
From: Charles Arthur <email@example.com>
The Wire - Adventures in Modern Music, Issue 199, September 2000
Global Ear - A survey of sounds from around the planet. This month....
by Charles Arthur
When the Haitian-American rappers, The Fugees, played for free in front of
over 80,000 people in downtown Port-au-Prince in early 1997, it was a seal
of approval for Haitian rap's new wave. African-American HipHop was already
popular with the spoilt brat kids of Haiti's millionaire elite families who
live in rich ghettoes up in the mountains. But, following the Fugees'
homecoming (Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel had left Haiti for the States when
children), and especially when Jean released his solo album, The Carnival,
featuring four songs sung in his native Haitian Creole language, the genre
took on a new cool with the slum kids of Port-au-Prince.
As a result, a host of Creole-language rappers have become the new darlings
of the Haitian music scene. Two of the most successful of these homemade
Haitian rap groups are Original Rap Staff, and King Posse. Original Rap
Staff's newer material clearly shows the Fugees influence - their song 'Ti
Chans' for example uses samples, refrains and socially conscious rhymes
right of the Jean/Michel style book. King Posse, on the otherhand, are five
young singers who are fusing Jamaican dancehall reggae with the
presentational style of U.S. boy bands like the Backstreet Boys.
Although Haiti appears to be the least Americanised of the Caribbean island
cultures, the presence in the U.S. and Canada of as many as two million
Haitian-Americans - many of them now second and third generation - makes for
an increasingly evident cultural crossover. Not only do Haitian-Americans
come back to Haiti, especially at Carnival time and for the summer, but some
Haitian musicians can now find the beginnings of a lucrative market for
their music in the north.
Yet in spite of this development, outside the capital in villages and
hamlets where most of the population lives, there is still next to no
electricity, let alone the chance to hear the latest U.S. sounds. Here it is
folk music, closely linked to celebration of the Vodou religion, that
provides the entertainment. In Vodou temples, drumming and dancing are the
meat and drink of the 16 hours plus sessions organised to honour the spirits
who commune between humans and the supreme divinity. As a result of
centuries of repression, first by French colonialists and then Christian
missionaries, Vodou cermonies have traditionally taken place at night in off
the beaten track temples. They still do. For day-time music and dance, the
alternative is rara, the street music of the Haitian peasants and slum
dwellers, the D-I-Y, stripped down, punk version of the Vodou-influenced
'rasin' (roots) music scene.
Rara is a traditional folk music unique to Haiti. In its purest form it is
created by a group playing single-note trumpets of varying length that are
fashioned from bamboo tubes. The players blow through a mouthpiece at one
end while striking the side of the tube to enhance the rhythm. Each year,
during the weeks of Lent - between the annual Shrove Tuesday Carnival and
Easter Sunday - rara bands set off on foot, and lead wildly dancing crowds
along country lanes and through the streets of Port-au-Prince's sprawling
slums. Increasingly rara can be experienced at other times, and some rasin
bands are making it a more and more prominent part of their performances.
Arrive late on a Thursday evening at Port-au-Prince's downtown Hotel
Oloffson, and you're likely to find a crowd cavorting through the gardens
following behind a group of percussionists and one-note trumpet players. The
rhythm is insistent, repetitive and hypnotic. The band is RAM, who made
their UK debut last month at the Edinburgh festival.
RAM is lead by the amiable Richard Morse, who runs the legendary Hotel
Oloffson in a laid-back style. Its long bar, overhead fans, and cool
verandah inspired the author, Graham Greene, who used the Oloffson as the
setting for much of his 1960s novel, The Comedians. Nowadays, the Greene
connection brings in a few guests who, together with a steady trickle of
foreign correspondents and danger-seekers, just about keep the hotel going.
As for Morse, it seems like his heart is not really in the hotel business.
In fact, the longer that you know him, the more it looks like his interest
in it extends little further than the fact that it serves as a regular venue
for his real passion - his Vodou-roots rock band.
Morse had grown up in the New York area - his father's a U.S academic; his
mother, a Haitian folk singer and dancer - and, when he arrived in Haiti in
1987, the rasin scene was already a few year old. Its leaders were middle
class Haitian kids who, fed up with the inane and profane compas, a
merengue-type Haitian pop, turned to Bob Marley, reggae, and Rastafarianism
from neighbouring Jamaica for inspiration. They had got into Vodou, and
especially into Vodou drumming, based on rhythms more or less unchanged in
the two hundred and fifty years since hundreds of thousands of West African
slaves had arrived in the then French colony. On this percussive base, rasin
groups such as Foula, Kanpech, Boukan Ginen, Koudjay, and Boukman
Eksperyans, laid Hendrix and Santana style guitar, and lyrics that both
criticised the country's military dictatorships, and praised Haitian peasant
culture and beliefs. Morse, with his punk sensibility, added thrashed chords
- some taken unashamedly from Clash songs - and increasingly cynical lyrics
about Haitian politics.
For all his outside influences and worldy concerns, Morse constantly refers
to the importance of Haiti's much maligned and misunderstood Vodou religion.
He says, "Haitian music is and has always been about the Vodou. I find its
inspiration endless. Everything from rhythms, to melodies, to messages."
Most foreigners can't get beyond the Bond film, "Live and Let Die"
representations of Vodou, and nervously joke about putting pins in dolls,
but for artists in Haiti it is, as Morse says, a rich source of imagery,
colour, movment and rhythm.
On the live evidence, their drumming is getting heavier, and their forays
into rara are getting longer, and wilder. RAM's new album (their third),
provisonally entitled "Songs from the Last Testament", will, Morse says, be
"more extreme. It's more vodou and more rock. You feel the essence of each
genre without feeling compromised."
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