Wednesday, October 28, 2009


On December 21st, 1936, Alan Lomax sent a report to Herbert Putnam, the Librarian Of Congress, about his first impressions after arriving in Haiti.  This quote is published here for the first time...

"I have looked about enough to be sure this is the richest and most virgin field I have ever worked in. I hear fifteen or twenty different street cries from my hotel window each morning while I dress. The men sing satirical ballads as they load coffee on the docks. Among the upper-class families many of the old French ballads have been preserved. The meringue, the popular dance of polite society here, is quite unknown in America and has its roots in the intermingling of the Spanish and French folk-traditions. The orchestras of the peasants play marches, bals, blues, meringues. Then mama and papa and kata tambours officiate at as many kinds of dances ⎯ the congo, the Vodou, and the mascaron. Then there seem to be innumerable cante-fables [oral tales punctuated by songs or rhymes performed by the audience]. Each of these categories comprise, so I am informed, literally hundreds of melodies ⎯ French, Spanish, African, mixtures of the three. The radio and the sound movie and the phonograph record have made practically no cultural impression, so far as I can discover, except among the petit-bourgeois of the coastal cities. And American jazz is hardly known here except among the rich who have visited America. Composition, by which I mean folk composition, is still very active. So I think I can say that unless a piece of sky falls on my head, this trip will mean some beautiful records for the Library’s collection."

Monday, October 26, 2009


As a former French colony, Haiti inherited the European celebration called Carnaval, which emerged in medieval times as a period of excessive indulgence before the abstinence of Lent. Coming in the dead of winter as a harbinger of spring, Carnaval celebrates eating, drinking, dressing in costume, and all forms of transformation, transgression, playful obscenity and humor. (including political humor, piking fun at the church and state and the heirarchy of social relations)

Click on the text box below to enjoy the music of Carnaval:
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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Haiti Box Set - Free Taste #2

*As Gage Averil writes in the beginning of his notes to the second volume within the boxset*

"During his initial month in Haiti, Alan Lomax fell in love with the rough-hewn music of small ensembles that he called malinoumbas groups (sometimes called manoubas or manoumba) after the name of the large boxlike "thumb piano" on which a player sits and plucks metal tongues suspended over a sound hole. Along with malinoumba, these rustic ensembles typicaly feature one- or two-string instruments (a guitar and/or a four-string banza banjo sometimes a twa or trois, a stringed instrument equivalent to the Cuban tres, with three courses of double strings, a tchatcha (gourd rattle, similar to the Cuban maracas) a tanbou (barrel drum played by hands), bwa (percussion sticks comparable to the Cuban claves) and sometimes an accordion.

These same ensembles go by many names; sometimes they're simply called ti bann (little ensembles) or twoubadou groups.

Click on the text box below to enjoy the music of the Troubadors:
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Rara Band’s Search For Home Pt. 2

...but there was still the problem of defining rara - and more specifically finding footage that could bring its origins to life. A year and a half of archival research had provided some clues: Maya Deren’s Divine Horseman includes some gorgeous shots of rara dancing and vaksin playing.  Anthropologists George Eastman Simpson and Melville and Francis Herskovitz documented both a few stunning processions, as well as many of the rites and rituals of village life from which the ritual or rara sprang.  Other leads were more elusive: we heard a rumor from a scholar that Katherine Dunham had filmed rara’s in her graduate studies research. 

After a year and a half of emails, phone calls and written requests, we were finally given access to the footage only to discovered that 1) while Dunham was a genius at writing, dance, and scholarship, she wasn’t particularly gifted at holding a camera steady, and 2) she did not in fact ever film more than a few seconds of barely-on-screen rara musicians.  

Gage Avril, the editor of this box set, first tipped me off to the Lomax’s footage of rara (which the Lomax Archive was generous and helpful in providing).  When I watched the footage I was immediately struck by the many remarkable paradoxes. The first was that the footage, shot in 1936, is in full color!  (In fact, it became a challenge to convince audiences that the footage was as old as it is.)

The second paradox was that while it was one of the earliest recordings of rara in the field - it was also largely faked.  As I’d learned from Dr. Avrill, the rara was staged for the camera, outside of traditional rara season, and within the confines of a private compound or “lakou.” The problem was that there were no public raras to film, since the local Catholic Church was in the midst of one of its periodic vodou purges, in which public ceremonies were banned, drums and ritual objects were burned, and by some accounts, vodou priests were occasionally killed.   
So the footage didn’t have the usual chaos or a rara procession, where its nearly impossible to figure out what’s going on or where to look..  Instead a few musicians, dancers and singers made few orderly marches and turns, dancing, jumping and flailing arms along the way. (Lomax’s team could record film or audio, but not both at the same time, so it was impossible to tell which songs were actually being played).  Yet ironically, there was something in the staged exuberance of the footage that communicates the spirit of rara better than almost any footage I’d found. It was as if, knowing that the audio wasn’t being recorded, the musicians were giving the camera a silent charade of what rara was supposed to sound like.  When we’d show the footage to audiences in rough-cut screenings, they always love the clips, and comment on its infectious energy.  It ended up being one of the most compelling documents of rara we’d found.
In the end, just as it was impossible to define rara, we realized it was impossible to find footage which could show what a “true” rara looked like.   The best we could do was to look to incredible documents like Lomax’s films for flickering hints about the origins, the meanings, and the spirit of the music which is still moving and electrifying audiences decades later and thousands of miles away.