A crate-digging journey in search of a lost musical legacy.
Each week, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
In Jacmel, a sleepy beach town on Haiti’s southern coast, I hit pay dirt: In the archives of a local radio station, stuffed inside a gray metal locker, were hundreds of rare vinyl records, relics of a golden age of Haitian music. I sorted and sifted for hours, previewed each record on my portable turntable, and then entered into lengthy and sometimes frustrating negotiations over cost. Among the stacks was a holy grail of Haitian music: the debut LP of les Loups Noirs—the Black Wolves—titled Jouent Pour Vous, recorded in 1970 when the group members were still in their early 20s. Les Loups Noirs became a key part of a rich musical tradition that few people off the island or outside the Haitian diaspora know exists.
I’d come to Haiti in search of rare and obscure Haitian vinyl records just like these, mainly from the 1960s to the ’80s, in a bid to preserve, remaster, and compile them and issue an anthology of the cosmopolitan Haitian sound at its experimental, revivalist best. During what crate-diggers and curators refer to as the “modern” or “golden era” of Haitian music, musicians experimented with traditional rhythms while balancing a host of outside influences. There was the jazz-era instrumentation, imported during the early-20th-century American occupation, which introduced horn sections to Haitian ensembles. From Cuba came meringue, mambo, son, guajira, and charanga. Accordion-driven Colombian cumbia and Dominican merengue left their marks as well. Added to the melting pot of sound were rhythms, drum patterns, and percussion brought across the Atlantic from Africa.
Haiti, like Cuba and Brazil, received a far greater number of enslaved Africans than the United States. Nago rhythms from what is today Nigeria and Benin, Kongo rhythms from Central Africa, and Petwo rhythms from the vodou traditions of Guinea, among many other influences, were revived in an age of black consciousness, driven by the Negritude and Noiriste philosophies of Afro-Caribbean intellectuals like Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey and Martinique’s Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. The lasting result is a rich, layered terrine that spawned Haiti’s Cuban-inspired meringue; the dominant kompa direct of Nemours Jean-Baptiste; the silky tenor sax-led cadence rampa pioneered by Webert Sicot; psychedelic mini jazz; and the dance-floor-filling vodou jazz compositions of the de facto national orchestra, Super Jazz des Jeunes. At its peak, Haitian music was widely distributed, proliferating its unique blend of sound across the Francophone Caribbean and West Africa.
Recordings capturing this vibrant laboratory of colliding influences were produced and pressed in Haiti, the U.S., France, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Huge catalogs from the heavyweight record labels of the time—IBO Records, Marc Records, and Mini Records—and the smaller, private presses have been largely forgotten in recent decades. Many people have tossed their collections or left them to warp in damp basements. A unique piece of Haitian history and culture was at risk of being lost. Most of the world had never heard these sounds, and I wanted to change that.
LP cover of Ensemble Meridional des Cayes. 1972.
The roads of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, are unruly and unpaved, covered in dust and soot. Communal taxis, known as tap-taps, aggressively compete with oil and water tankers, nongovernmental organization and aid agency vans, and armored vehicles carrying U.N. peacekeepers along the main roads. Police roadblocks bottleneck traffic in vital arteries of the city’s center.
But the streets are also home to a unique vibrancy. Roaming “rara” bands play folkloric rhythms with hypnotic horns and haunting percussion. Prim and proper uniformed youths flood the winding hillside roads around the capital to socialize over after-school snacks. The air is filled with smells of goat bouillon, pig feet ragout, and scotch bonnet peppers.
Radio stations were the first port of call in my search for buried recordings. The radio enjoys a special place in the Haitian imagination. It remains the most widely used conduit of information and entertainment for Haitians at home and in the diaspora. More than television, more than the Internet. “The importance of radio among Haitian-Americans has its roots in Haiti, where the illiteracy rate is about 80 percent and most people cannot afford a television,” wrote the New York Times in 1993. “In Haiti, a peasant may not wear shoes, but he has a transistor radio,” Raymond Cajuste, a radio show host, told the newspaper.
Radio’s prominence in Haitian life dates back to 1935, when Ricardo Widmaïer, a German immigrant, set up Radio HH3W, later named Radio d’Haiti, where some of the very first recordings took place. Ricardo’s son, Herby Widmaïer, established Radio Métropole in 1970. It played a key role in developing and advancing modern Haitian music.
Word spread throughout certain circles in the city that I was in town looking for records. I continued to be greeted with disbelief and laughter.
Tucked away in a quieter corner of Port-au-Prince, Radio Métropole’s property is one of the best kept in the city. A garden, adorned with a range of flora, surrounds a stone lined walkway leading to the one-story building. I was given a tour by Herby Widmaïer’s son, Joel, who introduced me to a Haitian music insider: George Michelle, an aging man with a large figure and a commanding voice. Michelle was a close Widmaïer family confidant in the station’s early days.
In the backroom of their largest studio, now fitted with state-of-the-art radio technology, Michelle recalled the story of Radio Métropole and its impact on Haitian music culture. During the 1950s and early ’60s, about a dozen AM radio stations were scattered around Port-au-Prince. With the import of new technology from Japan and Europe, Radio Métropole created the first FM radio station in the country. The sound quality increased, allowing for a host of radio programs, talk shows, and phone-in shows. Better technology led to greater influence, and Radio Métropole drove the popularity of Haitian music. Bands were frequently in the studio to play live. Les Difficiles de Pétion-Ville, a seminal electric band from the upscale Port-au-Prince suburb, for example, earned the station’s highest ratings.
Métropole set the standard and inspired the growth of a broadcasting industry across the country. Radio stations like Radio Haiti Diffusion and Radio Caraibe, still standing today, began to spread the gospel of Latin music, especially Cuban music, which, in the same manner as West and Central Africa, had a huge impact on the development of Haiti’s musical identity. Alongside Cuban sounds, Mexican Ranchera, French music, and popular American jazz and soul made its way to Haiti’s airwaves. Michelle said that at one point Haiti was “overwhelmed” by Latin music. It won by default. But by the ’60s, as more radio stations entered the market, Haitian music began to dominate.
At the time, radio stations still relied on magnetic tapes. Vinyl, Michelle said, was far too expensive and not readily available in Haiti. There were only three stores in Port-au-Prince at the time that sold actual LPs. Most of the records were pressed for the U.S. market and for Haitians in the diaspora, who could better afford them. Radio, as a result, played a huge role in the dissemination of popular Haitian music. This would explain the lack of vinyl culture in Haiti as oppose to other islands in the Caribbean, like Cuba and Jamaica, or Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Haiti's de-facto national orchestra, Super Jazz des Jeunes, performing at the Haitian's community's legendary dance parties in New York. 1970s.
Super Jazz des Jeunes performing at one of the Haitian community’s legendary dance parties in New York, 1970s.
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s brutal president from 1957 to 1971, used his secret police, the Tonton Macoute, against broadcasters deemed a political threat. Several radio stations closed, some by force, some voluntarily, and many radio owners and broadcast engineers left the country, Michelle told me. At Radio Jacmel, where I found the stash of rare vinyl, journalists were shot dead. Intellectuals who aired their views were also killed.
Journalists and other personalities at Radio Métropole were killed, jailed, or exiled. Music, however, was not forbidden under Duvalier. Some radio stations, according to Michelle, were forced to play political music supportive of his rule, but, indeed, some of the most exceptional interpretations of Latin and Cuban music, as well as the deepest, darkest big-band vodou jazz cuts, were recorded under Duvalier’s reign. Duvalier chose bands and organized carnivals to promote his rule and enshrine his cult of personality. Haiti’s political elite, closely allied to Duvalier, became the biggest private audience for Nemours Jean-Baptiste and Webert Sicot’s early bands. The rivalry and persistent competition between Jean-Baptiste’s kompa direct style and Sicot’s cadence rampa vitalized the Haitian music scene, inspiring a generation of young musicians to follow their example.
It was here, at Radio Métropole, and at several other radio outlets, where I placed ads for every single piece of vinyl in the city and dug through the radio’s archives.
Most people I met were bewildered by my quest. Not far from the presidential palace, I made my way to an old music shop selling only CDs. In response to my queries, a voice shouted from a group of men huddled outside: “Plaques? Plaques??”—as records are known in Haiti— “W ap chèche les plaques? No plaques!”
Roughly translated: “You’re mad.” Eventually the response to my incessant and persistent requests changed from laughter to annoyance. The devastating 2010 earthquake had destroyed many of the archives, and the pain of that loss was reflected in the reaction of radio operators, who rightly cherished these artifacts.
Many radio stations were also ruined during the earthquake. But the owners who lost nearly everything set up shop in makeshift studios on building rooftops, using the most basic of microphones, sound mixing boards, and transistors. One radio operator invited me to be a guest on a show dedicated to Haitian music of the ’60s and ’70s.
“You’re searching for the 33s (33 RPM), yes?” asked the radio operator in French. He was a rotund man with a round face, specks on his cheeks, and quiet grace in his deep voice.
“Yes, and 7-inch plaques,” I replied.
Debut LP of Les Loups Noirs ;The Black Wolves;. 1970.
Debut LP of Les Loups Noirs, 1970.
“You won’t find much in Haiti, there’s more in the U.S. and France and the other Caribbean islands. The earthquake crushed my radio’s archives and my personal collection,” he said.
Word spread throughout certain circles in the city that I was in town looking for records. I continued to be greeted with disbelief and laughter at my mission. Radio station after radio station shooed me away. My phone remained silent despite a number of ads placed.
After two weeks, a call or two came in.
In downtown Port-au-Prince, I scoured old warehouses and garages, finding gems like Tabou Combo’s first LP with the track “Gislene,” a storming accordion-driven ’60s Haitian dance-floor workout.
But I still wasn’t finding the kind of variety I’d come here for. But then one day I got a phone call from a man who said he had collection of 3,000 records. It was exactly what I needed—a goldmine, albeit one covered in dust and insects.
I spent six hours with the man and his family sifting through and listening to the records. Here, in my dusty hands, was a rare piece of Haitian history, largely forgotten but still very much alive.
Vik Sohonie’s upcoming compilation, Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz, and Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960–1981, will be released this spring on Ostinato Records. This piece is adapted from the liner notes.
Based in New York and Bangkok, Vik Sohonie is a record collector, DJ, writer, and founder of Ostinato Records, a label dedicated to Afro-Atlantic sounds.
‘Experience makes a man’, this couldn’t hold more true in case of Bobyy Raymond. Bobby Raymond continues to play with the same enthusiasm he had decades ago and has stayed true to his passion for music. Bobby Raymond is among the most original prolific, and influential bassists in the Haitian music history.
We received this in our mailbox, form a regular reader of Haitianbeatz.com, who wanted to share his experience from a party that took place at Amazura this past Saturday, produced by Showbizz Ent and NYHPC (New York City Promoter Coalition):
I’m Just a “BASS PLAYER”
I’m in my senior year at The College of New Rochelle, and with the greatest of pleasure… I am currently taking a course called, “Music In The City ”. Professor Mark Adams, who is also an extraordinary musician, proposed an interesting question to the student body. It was a question that would make me think. He inquired, “What would life be like without music?” I arrived home the night of that class session, and thought about what he had asked, and immediately said to myself… “Life without Music would be Some REAL DEPRESSING SH#T!” I couldn’t live with out it. In my opinion, music is in many ways the fabric of our lives and the definition of society. It is a reminder of how things once were, an indication of how things are, and a view of where society is headed. Music is a direct reflection of the picture of the world. Music can be a way to deliver messages, a poetic medium, a fine art, or nothing more than a source of entertainment. I love music! The following reading will focus on my recent experience with what the beautiful people of Haiti would call “KOMPA MUSIC”. You see… the ‘Music In The City’ course is a platform where students explore the vast variety of music and venues the city has to offer. With that being said… the course has exposed me to the most wonderful “Saturday” of which I had not had in the longest of time… I don’t remember the last time I had fun like this… Music in the City is the direction to living a real enjoyable Life, which is impossible without the “Music” part! Without further ado, let me tell you what happened…
A Saturday like No Other
On Saturday, the 30th of January 2016, relaxing home (about to do homework), I get a phone call. “Yo, What up?” I answered. It was my homeboy Loe da Gizzy (also known as “Thot La Rock”). With the greatest of excitement in his tone, he said, “Myyyyy Nigga… (Laughingly) I have two joints (referring to what the new generation of guys of New York City would call girls who are very sexy) that are trying to hang tonight. I immediately decline… I get this way when I am into my studies. “Nah, B… I have homework to do”, I told him. Irritated by my response he said (with persistence), “C’mon, son…don’t do me like that… These Chicks are Badddddd, B… Don’t flake out on me with this… Nahhhhh… I need you for this one!” Closing my books, and now shaking my head (as if I knew it would be a long night), my response was, “Ok, you got me… where they tryna go?”. He says, “I don’t know…some sh#t in Queens… I’ll send you the flyer shorty sent to me.” Shortly after, we hung up; I immediately received his texted, which was a flyer that read, “Saturday, January 30th, 2016 Showbizz in association with NYHPC Presenta RED CARPET affair, NU-LOOK, CARIMI, JBEATZ @ AMAZURA”. With great joy in my heart, almost dropping my phone, rapidly saying, “THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU GOD… I KNEW YOU KNEW I HAD A PAPER TO DO for the Music In The City Course!” To my surprise, the groups on the flyer were all Haitian Bands. It was this that contributed to my happiness. I love Kompa Music. This was the beginning of my Saturday Night.
At 12:30am, Thot La Rock and I arrived to Club AMAZURA together with the ladies. As we walked into the venue, (it’s as if everything stopped for a second) all eyes were on us. As my homeboy mentioned, “Them JOINTS with us were Corretta Scott King mixed with Dorothy Dandridge in their prime FINEEE!” When we arrived in the club, the band ‘Nu-look’ was at the end of their set, and the group ‘Carimi’ were up next. As the musicians were positioning themselves to rock the house, Thot La Rock and I went to the Bar for drinks as the girls waited for us at our table. In fact, we have been drinking before getting to the club. On stage, I noticed the drummer, checking his kick, “Boom, Boom, Boom, hitting his High hat, and the crash”. There was a Conga Player testing his instrument on microphone connected to it. There was also a cowbell player (testing both the cowbell and a separate four tom from the drummer). As we walked back to the table, I heard the guitar player doing an incredible riff , and the keyboard player following along with a stringy synthesizer like sound. There was also a horn section that was doing their thing.
All through the time that the musicians were testing their equipment, the lead singer (a light skin Guy) was engaging the crowd of almost over 350people. Introducing himself and his musicians, saying (Hello in their native Creole language), “Sak Pase”. The crowd of people anxiously responding back, “M'ap boule (English translation: We’re Alive & Ready)”. As soon as we got to our seats, the crowd erupted loudly as the band struck with their hard hitting single, “Baby I Miss You”. The atmosphere was like no other. Awwww, Man… I don’t know where Thot la Rock was at this point, but my new Sweetie Pie and I were on that dance floor “Grindinggggg”(off course after I had taken the biggest gulp of Hennessy out of a BIG RED CUP filled to the TOP before hitting the dance floor). With our bodies close together like Glue, we danced and danced dangerously seductive. In my mind, “She was now pregnant”. I knew she was… No, I’m joking but it was a close call! Shesshhhh, who knows what would’ve happened had I not twirled her around at the right time… Thank GOD I’m a Pro. Much further into the song, I don’t know if it was the liquor talking, but as we danced with intense closeness… I confessed to her (whispering in her ear, with tears of seriousness in my eyes), “Baby, I think I love you… What’s your name again?” She busted out laughing, saying, “You’re Crazy… but I think I love you more!” Awww, Man… this was absolutely the power of the Music…. It couldn’t have been the liquor… Hell NO!
In conclusion, music moves people of all cultures, in a way that doesn’t seem to happen with other animals. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know if comparing animals to human beings would be the right thing to do in this case, however, I think no one really understands why listening to music (which, unlike sex or food) has no intrinsic value. As it had done with me that Saturday Night, music can trigger such profoundly rewarding experiences. In fact, I wish I could share the music that “My Sweetie Pie” and I had made after the party, but… It might not be appropriate for this particular paper. However, I will conclude by saying, “She’s a true Artist… A REAL SINGER! …And Me… Well, Me… I’m just a “BASS PLAYER”… Especially after how I pulled that “G” String!” Lets just say I found her note, and improvised my way through the rest of the song…
This started as a vague question to Jean Claude Viviens (Staffpoze) konpa expert, regarding the evolutions of instruments in konpa. He started to explain to me how the evolution took place, and I stopped him, thinking if I want to know that information, probably there are many more who might want answer to that question. I asked him if he can write an article for HB on that exact question. He graciously accepted and here we are:
“Well, I was born in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti (Au Cap). As far as music is concerned, there’s a lot of diversity there so it all started there when I was very
In a relatively short amount of time, Vladimyr Etienne "Katalog" has become an household name to the HMI, a leading counterpart in Gabel, a much respected band in Florida, for their tenacity and patience. Since the release of Gabel’s last album “gon’w jan pou ye”, Katalog’s flashy dress habit combined with his boyish looks and a rare dynamic flare, have made him equally popular on stage as any other HMI vocalist.
A native of Haïti, Gasman Pierre, better known as Gazman Couleur, was born on August 22nd, in Gonaïves. Passionate about football, he dreamt of becoming a professional player, but a knee injury changed his path and led him to the microphone.Gazman cherished the dream of being a singer
Arly Larivierre, born in Cap-Haitien Haiti, is a Haitian singer-songwriter, musician, record producer and leader of the konpa band “Nu Look”. Arly Larivierre’s father Daniel Larivierre was the lead singer and composer for the great Haitian band Tropicana D’Haiti. Arly is the 2nd oldest of 5 children,
After almost 5 years, Kreyol La drops their latest album titled INVICTUS ... Listen to 3 Hot tracks from the hits loaded record
Kreyol La _ Before & After
Kreyol La _ Turn Me On feat TMD (TMichel Dulix)
Kreyol La _ Cheri Map File'w