ROMANCES, CANTICLES, AND CONTREDANSE
Without a doubt, what drew ethnographers to Haiti in the 1930s was the
hope of encountering vigorous African traditions in the New World. Indeed,
descendents of African slaves had preserved cultural expressions from African
nations stretching from Angola through what is now Senegal. And yet the
legacy of French colonization was also in evidence everywhere. Alan Lomax
encountered many of these French legacies, not just in the elite arts of
urban Haitians, but in rural contredanses, in the canticles sung before Vodou
ceremonies, and in children’s game songs in small towns around Haiti (see
Volume 5, Pou Timoun-yo: Music By and For Children for examples of the
latter). These vestiges of European expressive culture have not fared well in
the Haiti of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and some are extremely
rare in Haiti today.
Most of the romances Lomax recorded, many of them by a group of
musicians he called Louis and his Men (led by Louis Forvilice) are in
archaic forms of French, or in a mix of archaic French and Haitian Kreyòl.
Unfortunately, Lomax left many of these recordings untitled, and he left no
notes concerning the group or its songs. All in all, translating these songs
proved to be extremely difficult, and I’ve had to leave many of them out and
provide only skeletal lyrics for others.
This volume also explores another European survival, the music of Haitian contredanse.
These examples feature a contredanse ensemble called the Sosyete Viyolon (Violin Society) with a folk violin as the lead melodic instrument, backed by a small percussion ensemble. Folk fiddles are still to be found in some areas of Haiti (ethnomusicologist David Yih recorded an ensemble
near Les Cayes that used one in the 1990s, and I have recorded contredanse ensembles that use a fif or wooden flute instead). The contredanse was an import into the French courts from English country dances, and it became a hugely popular dance in France of the 1700s. It incorporated a number of choreographic figures for group dancing, which were typically called out by a dancing master. These contredanses, popularized in the colonies, survived colonialism around the Caribbean and spawned a number of popular dances from the couples sections of the figures (méringue and danzón, for example).
Finally, the recordings conclude with a short set of cantiques from those performed at the start of a Vodou Seremoni at the temple of an ougan named Ti-Kouzen in Carrefour Dufort on Easter Friday. These were given no titles and there is no mention of them in Lomax’s journals, but they are haunting and lovely.
Please enjoy this taste from Volume 6
(it can take a few moments to upload...please be patient)