Edited by Azizi Powell
This pancocojams post provides an excerpt from a 2009 New Yorker magazine article entitled "Roundtable: Haitian Music, Part 2: “What Does Revolution Sound Like?”.
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EXCERPT: HAITIAN MUSIC, PART 2: "WHAT DOES REVOLUTION SOUND LIKE"
Roundtable: Haitian Music, Part 2: “What Does Revolution Sound Like?”
By Sasha Frere-Jones July 9, 2009
"Three months ago, I posted a roundtable discussion of Haitian music among several remarkable scholars and writers. Happily, they have returned to discuss revolution, “rara,” and other intersections of Haitian politics, daily life, and music. Take it away. (If any participant is unfamiliar to you, refer to the original post.)
I often think of Haitian music as a kind of remarkable archive, one that keeps traces of the process of deportation, slavery, and revolution that created the nation. The slave trade to the colony of Saint-Domingue in the late eighteenth century brought forty thousand people a year from different parts of Africa, and these different groups met up on plantations and in towns, exchanging ideas, confronting their new situation, and creating new music, religion, and language. And they did so in the midst of a thriving cultural life in the towns of Saint-Domingue (and later—after the revolution—in Haiti). All the significant port towns had theatres with several performances every week, and in the largest, Le Cap, a theatre performed the works of Moliÿre and Voltaire, and several plays written locally in the Creole language, which brought together African and French grammar and vocabulary. Some of the revolutionaries who won independence for Haiti in 1804 were big fans of this eighteenth-century music and theatre—the music for Emperor Dessalines’s coronation was drawn from Rousseau’s blockbuster opera, “Le Devin du Village”—and they reopened the theatres after the revolution, performing the old plays with all-black casts. This was a swirling and complicated cultural world, and it produced a remarkable musical tradition.
But part of what also comes through in much Haitian music is a kind of response to the question “What does revolution sound like?”
Laurent, what a great question; it lets us imagine the political soundscape of public spaces. We may have a clue about the soundtrack for some moments of the Haitian revolution: the French army marched to battle with bands—corps de musiques—featuring snare drums and trumpets, which would follow the commands of the drum major to communicate through the chaos of the battlefield. So this is the music of warfare. Even more interesting, though, as you say, is the music of revolution: maroon armies were also said to move through space while surrounding themselves with big musical sound. A maroon leader in the Port-au-Prince region named Halou, headed an army of two thousand maroons, whose leader “marched preceded by the music of drums, lambis [conch shells], trumpets and sorcerers…”
That seems very possibly a historical source for the parading festival called “rara” (which happens to be the subject of my first book). Rara still lends itself to the feeling of rebellion. During rara season, which is during Lent, musicians and followers sort themselves into what they consider small “battalions” out on musical maneuvers. Nowadays they move about neighborhoods and villages, “taking territories” by dominating musically, competing in aesthetic battles to see which bands can attract the most fans. It feels exhilarating to go out with them and dance for miles through public space in the relative cool of the Haitian night, dancing behind waves of drummers, horn players, percussionists, and singers, with children and market women trailing behind, selling sweets from baskets on their heads. They usually sing religious songs to the spirits in the morning, and stop to pay their respects to their people in the cemeteries. Then, by late afternoon, they’ll “call out” local corruption, singing what little they can about politics in cryptic, poetic songs, often recycled for generations to fit the present crisis (and unfortunately there’s usually a crisis).
Hearing a rara band as it approaches for miles through the mountains is quite thrilling—it must have been electrifying to hear the rebel-army bands during the Haitian revolution. Rara creates a sonic signifier of Haitianness like no other, because of the distinctive bamboo horns that are played by hocketing (one player on one note, with everyone playing on rhythm to get a melody going). You can get a feel for parading rara music on this Web site. The track called “Instrumental Isolations” gives the feeling of a rara band passing by, and the video “Musicians in an Artibonite Rara Walking” presents something similar.
Rara parades are catching on in the Haitian diaspora, too; they’ve been used in celebrations as well as protests in Miami, New York, and Boston. Recently, a rara band from Brooklyn called DjaRara played on the Mall after Obama’s inauguration.
Rara is so unbelievably rich that I could go on forever, so I’d better sign off.
In trying to understand the music of Haiti, I find myself taking a transnational approach, because, as I keep arguing, the Haitian revolution was a generative explosion for the popular music of the hemisphere. It sent populations up and down the Atlantic coast and the Antilles—and ultimately to New Orleans, where many families from Saint-Domingue were reunited. There are places today where you can connect the dots by listening. Let me, then, make some connections.
To Elizabeth’s evocation of the trumpet and snare drum of the colonial military bands (which ultimately became the basis of the jazz instrumentation in New Orleans), I would add the vocal legacy of the military drill, which evolved into the gruff vocal style of dancehall reggae. The adoption of this vocal style throughout the Antilles echoes the universality of the quadrille in the same territories two centuries ago, when a commandeur barked out the dance steps.
The sound of revolution could easily have the same rhythm it had two centuries ago; it could be heard as recently as January in the street music from the underreported general strike that began in Guadeloupe and spread to Martinique. The rhythm that the L.K.P. (Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon, or Collective Against Exploitation) demonstrators are parading to is what was known in different times and places as the habanera, tango, and bamboula. In musical terms, dotted quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter: BOOMP, da DOM DOM. It’s a versatile but very specific rhythm, diffused across a wide geographic area. The scholar Robert Farris Thompson identifies it as the Kongo mbila a makinu, “the call to the dance,” and it was known in Arabic music. It’s the Antillean beat, bouncing around for three hundred years or more. It was the right-hand rhythm of Dominguan-descended Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Bamboula” in 1848; it’s the invariable underlying rhythm of reggaetón; and it’s the rhythm underpinning the Guadeloupean demonstrators. Another version of the same L.K.P. anthem, “Gwadloup sé tan nou” (“Guadeloupe is ours”) demonstrates a politicized use of the dancehall/reggaetón style, by now firmly entrenched as the timbre and rhythm of a pan-Antillean sensibility.
There’s also a lexical component to the sound of revolution. There have to be ways to transmit secrets in order to accomplish a revolution, no? The chronicler M.L.E. Moreau de St. Méry gives in a footnote (!) the untranslated text of an anthem from Saint-Domingue—a text corroborated elsewhere, and, more remarkably, which Moreau was able to transcribe without knowing the language (not French, and, very interestingly, not Creole either, but Kikongo), possibly from having heard it repeated many times:
Eh! eh! Bomba, hen! hen! Canga bafio té Canga moune dé lé Canga do ki la Canga li
The anthem translates roughly as:
Eh! eh! Secret, hen! hen! Tie up the abusers Tie up the whites Tie (them) up (with) the action spirit Tie them up
When I think of revolution and music, my first thought is this text.
They had a secret, all right. They were singing out loud what they were going to do. Hey, hey, secret! It was no secret if you understood the song: Bomba! (“Bomba” is a word with a complex of meanings; the art historian and linguist Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz tells me it means “secret.”) Had Moreau de St. Méry known the meaning of the lyrics he transcribed, he could perhaps have seen better the revolution that was coming in 1791.
It’s not a coincidence that bomba is the name of the folkloric Afro-Puerto Rican musical form. I was unaware until recently that this song, which we find in Moreau de St. Méry’s eighteenth-century book, continues to be sung. It has been collected in present-day Puerto Rico by the musicologist Alex Lasalle, leader of the New York-based bomba group Alma Moyó. It’s a bámbula (which in New Orleans was known as bamboula). I would not be surprised to find it somewhere in Cuba. One thing’s for sure: this song was almost certainly sung at Congo Square in New Orleans in the eighteen-teens. This in turn cracks open a mystery: what one component—and not an unimportant one—of Congo Square sounded like. The fabled bamboula is still alive, in the Dominguan diaspora.
Sometimes, as in Haiti, revolution entails dancing. Makandal was recognized and apprehended at a dance. In various parts of the Antilles there are choreographic societies that go to great lengths to perform a memory of the moment of truth of more than two hundred years ago: the last days of plantation slavery in the French Caribbean.
The unintelligibility of much of hip-hop and reggaetón to outsiders, as well as its relentless code-switching, is another way of getting at that bomba, in the sense of a sung-out secret. One of the remarkable things about the dancehall/reggaetón sound becoming a pan-Antillean and Caribbean style is that through timbre and rhythm it crosses the language divide that keeps adjacent territories from talking to each other now that their African languages have largely, though by no means entirely, vanished.
“When I was a kid, it struck me that the rara was always demanding respect, both with its loudness and active recruitment as it went along.”
Edwidge, you could be describing a second line in New Orleans, which I am convinced owes much to the rara. Last year around Easter I had the remarkable experience of going on a gagá (the Dominican equivalent of rara) out in the country in the Dominican Republic on Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) and then going on a second line in New Orleans the following Sunday. Despite all the differences of specifics and style, it felt so similar.
For a different stab at Laurent’s question that involves a uniquely Haitian style of music, I think immediately of the first two albums by Boukman Eksperyans—who Madison brought up in our first discussion—which come out of a tradition of direct political engagement in music (mizik angaje): “Vodou Adjaye” (released in the bicentennial year of the religious leader Boukman’s uprising at Bwa Kayiman, generally considered the start of the Haitian revolution) and “Kalfou Danjere” (Dangerous Crossroads, released after General Raoul Cedras’s September 30, 1991 coup against Aristide; the title song was the subversive hit of Haitian carnival in 1992).
These albums came out on Chris Blackwell’s Mango label in the heyday of “world music” and received international attention; they’re classics, as I’m sure everyone on this panel can attest. Listening to them is like jamming your finger into a wall socket. Drawing on the energy of rara, this style of music called mizik rasin (roots) was built on culturally oriented, politically charged lyrics, choral chants, trance-inducing vodou drumming over a drum-machine pulse, and psychedelic lead guitar. (Those who want to explore further should pick up Gage Averill’s essential “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti.”) There’s still nothing like the music generated by the rasin bands in that early-nineties moment of dangerous crossroads in Haiti—Boukan Ginen, RAM, Zobop, Kanpech, to name some that I recall from that time.
If I want to forgo the pop-music instrumentation and just go into the drum, which is where I most like to be, I go to Azor. Mizik rasin continues today, of course, and now has to confront a vision of Haiti’s future of sweatshop labor and importation of food.
I’m glad Ned brought us to Guadeloupe, and to the ongoing link between song and revolution, since it’s on that island that I’ve most often had the pleasure of participating in the pan-Caribbean tradition of street music we’ve been talking about. In Guadeloupe the two most famous groups, representing the two sides of the island, are Akiyo and Voukoum, each of them linked in important ways to the politics of protest and cultural revival. Their processions are led by a line of marchers striking long whips against the streets, which sends out a sharp, stunning crack (as you can see Voukoum doing here). Like the whips that are part of many Vodou ceremonies in Haiti, they are both a potent reminder of slavery and also a curious appropriation of slavery’s ultimate symbol for a radically different purpose, that of calling down the lwa or of opening the way for the music.
Their costumes, which parallel those found in New Orleans, Haiti, and Trinidad, tell the story of slavery: participants are sometimes dressed as “Congos” just arrived from Africa, covered in dark black grease, or else dressed as maroons, runaway slaves, as Akiyo is in a January 2009 procession. Akiyo’s anthem retells the history of abolition, declaring that it was not truly the French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher who freed the slaves, but rather the maroons who fought for liberty for generations. (One of the sponsors of the group over the past years has been the now-retired soccer star Lilian Thuram, long a pillar of the French national football team, who was born and grew up in Anse-Bertrand, Guadeloupe.) They evoke these histories in order to call for new kinds of marronage—running away from the plantations—in the present. What is powerful about these groups is that they really highlight the complicated politics of culture, and culture of politics, in the French Antilles.
The nationalist movements that developed there starting in the nineteen-sixties never rallied large majorities in favor of independence from France. But if political nationalism never really took hold, a kind of cultural nationalism that came out of the independence movements most definitely did, changing the way many Martinicans and Guadeloupeans think of themselves, and propelling the creation of groups like Akiyo and Voukoum. This movement, in turn, surrounded and in some ways sustained union activism and other political protest on the island, helping to lay the foundation for the strike that took place in Guadeloupe earlier this year.
As was the case two hundred years ago in Haiti, music and revolution are tightly intertwined, which makes sense, since one of the main tasks of Caribbean music has always been imagining the unimaginable.
I was in Haiti and then in Guadeloupe in late May and saw much of what we have been discussing in motion. In Haiti, on May 18th, Flag Day, there were many people out doing rara, bringing that tradition further into the national celebration. I saw one group led by a man with a large Bob Marley flag. And in Guadeloupe I was able to attend several events organized by the L.K.P., the coalition of groups that organized the strikes earlier this year. Raymond Gama, a historian who is a spokesman for the L.K.P., explained to me that though it was unclear what the next steps of the movement should be, or even what the specific goals should be for Guadeloupe, they felt that their victory was in mobilizing people, in showing them what might be possible in the future if they continue. We were at a nighttime dance driven by gwo-ka drumming, and with an illuminated grin he announced: “Nous sommes déjà demain!”—“We are already tomorrow!”
What does revolution sound like? This begs for a long answer, but consider this shortcut: Bob Marley and, with apologies to Carl Wilson, not Celine Dion. (Some people may smack the wag in me and suggest, with good reason, that the sound of revolution is Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles—to name a few. True enough, but Laurent, if I haven’t misunderstood you, you are not so much asking about revolution—dramatic, wide-reaching change—as you are reaching back to Revolution—political revolt that ushers in a new social order.) What, then, does that signal moment in the past—the Haitian revolution—sound like in the funky potpourri of rhythms that is contemporary Haitian music?
Thankfully, Haitian musicians possess a canny pop sensibility: they see no trade-off between being political heralds and pleasing a crowd. They tie their messages of resistance to catchy riffs and vibrant rhythms, producing ambidextrous music that presses the consciousness while shaking the hips and feet. Their songs may be infused with the memory of the revolution, they may make renewed challenges to power, they may weigh in on the heavy matters of the moment—but Haitian musicians never forget that they are entertainers. (This, in part, explains why some rara songs and parades are so ribald.) The music is infectious not merely because of catchy rhythms but also because satire (“pwen,” anyone?) does the heavy lifting, saving musicians—more often than not—from the snare of preachiness. (This is not only good musical sense—it’s common sense: explicit criticism of corrupt powers in Haiti has often invited a beating or worse.) With word, movement, and—uh-huh—sound all in coördinated service, the sound of revolution turns out to be as playful as it is weighty.
Boukman Eksperyans, whose very name advertises their aesthetic—Boukman was a Vodou priest and slave who helped incite the 1791 rebellion that started the Haitian revolution; eskperyans (“experience”) is a nod to Jimi Hendrix —is an excellent example of pop wed to protest.
On Vodou Adjeye, one of the albums Ned praises, traditional Haitian music (Vodou drums) and modern rock (guitar riffs) interweave beneath protest. (On “Wet Chenn” (“Remove the Chains”) they insist, “Get angry, break the chains”; “Ke’-m Pa Sote,” a song credited with precipitating the military junta’s downfall in 1990, wears its resistance in its title: “I Am Not Afraid.”)
But the sound of revolution is much more than the sum of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and political criticism. In Haiti, it also involves coming to terms with Countee Cullen’s question, “What is Africa to me?” In Haitian music, one’s relationship to Africa is central to the “sound of revolution,” and so the celebration of the Afro-Haitian vernacular—language (Creole), tradition (Vodou; kombit dance), religion (Vodou)—is paramount.
It’s no surprise, then, that Vodou Adjeye opens with “Se Kreyol Nou Ye” (“We’re Creole”), which criticizes Haitians who “would rather speak French, English, or Spanish rather than Creole.” The musicians declare “We’re Creole—we’ll never be ashamed of it” … “we’re people of the Kongo, let’s not be ashamed of it” and the galloping Vodou rhythms convince you they mean it. And in “Nou Pap Sa Bliye” (“We Won’t Forget This”) they come to the defense of Vodou: “They’re saying that it’s werewolf music/But we know that it’s a lie.” But so what if you don’t understand Creole?
The warm voices, bright guitar riffs, jittery synthesizer lines, and propulsive drumming will dissolve your regret. (I’m reminded of the many people who happily dance to Bob Marley’s lament “No Woman No Cry” and his protest “Get Up, Stand Up.” A welcome incongruity, if ever there was one. Music scholar Lynn Abbott once made an observation about Marley’s music that aptly applies to much Haitian music: “It reminds me of the Cajun Two-Step [dance style] that chugs merrily along while the guy is singing, ‘I’m condemned to walk down the big lonesome road for the rest of my days.’ ”) Yes, perhaps the revolution—or should I say Revolution?—will get lost in translation, but the sound of joyful defiance, that open secret, will prance right through.”…
Some portions of this article were reformatted to enhance reading.
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