Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Oct 27th 2009 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
Averill, currently professor of history and culture specializing in Caribbean studies at the University of Toronto, had for several years before the event been involved in a project to research and release material from the massive sound and film archives recorded in 1936 and '37 by American song collector Alan Lomax during his trips to Haiti. The material, kept in the Library of Congress and long unexamined, was the results of an arduous adventure in which the young Lomax lugged cumbersome recording equipment around on buses (he had no private transportation on the visits) even while suffering from malaria. Despite all that, he was able to gather an unbelievable 1,500-plus recordings covering the full range of music: work songs, religious music, vodou and rara ritual, children's songs, mérengue and other social dance styles among them.
Take 'Mesi Papa Vensan' ("Thank You Papa Vincent"), by Surprise Jazz, which is the first song on 'Alan Lomax in Haiti,' a collection being released Nov. 17 culled from the archives -- 287 song, more than nine hours of music, on 10 CDs, plus six films Lomax shot at the same time.
'Mesi Papa Vensan'
Explains Averill, "Recorded in an elite club, this small 'jazz' orchestra with clarinet lead plays a popular tributary méringue song for the President of Haiti, Sténio Vincent, and the lyrics consist of a recitation of the ways that that the president had benefited the lives of Haitian common people. Jazz had come to Haiti with the American Marines and with recordings, and mixed with the urban form of the méringue, it was the music of choice in the dancing establishments along the waterfront in Haiti of the 1930s."
It was the Haiti that Dunham first experienced. And while on stage introducing her, Averill remembered that he had some Lomax recordings of the very people with which Dunham had studied and performed, made right around the time she was there.
"I walked over to her and said, 'I just realized that I have songs by all the people you worked with there, so would you mind if I played some for you?'" he recalls. "And she looked at me as if I'd just brought ghosts to her."
And so he played to pieces over the PA.
"It was a whole congregation of people she knew and she got up onstage and was in tears, crying, talking about how she hadn't heard these people in 70 years. It's one of those experiences of people reconnecting with this. I was really profoundly impacted."
Averill is expecting a lot of variations of that scene with the release of this great wealth of material films.
"This will have an interesting effect -- I can't say what -- in Haiti itself," he says. "It might change what people are singing, what vodou pop ensembles are performing. This additional impact in Haiti will be curious and interesting -- I hope and think it will. People in Haiti have been hungry for this."
With civil wars, poverty, long stretches of military rule, the nation's history has at best been ignored on the island. Archives have been destroyed. But the advent in recent years of a stable government has created an environment that he believes will receive these materials with great interest.
"There's a cultural ministry and whole nation willing to understand its history," he says. "And suddenly we drop this large archives into their laps. Going to be fascinating to follow the path of this and see how it rolls out and what it changes in Haiti."
This endeavor will get a high-profile assist. The project is being done under the auspices of the Haiti Repatriation and Cultural Preservation Project of the Lomax-founded Association for Cultural Equity -- of which Lomax's daughter Anna L. Wood is the director. And that in turn was selected for support by the Clinton Global Initiative and the Green Family Foundation.
But Averill already experienced some of this just in the course of researching the material with his colleague Louis Carl St. Jean.
"We would have a problem, something mentioned in a song about something, and we'd have no idea," he says. "So Louis would say he'd call his aunt and she said, 'I know an old mambo,' and he'd get on the phone with a 78-year-old mambo and play the recording over the phone and get a comment. Old priests saying, 'I can't believe they sung that up there like that!' Or 'I thought that died out; I hadn't heard that since I was a kid.' When we bring this around, we're playing the voices of ancestors from generations past. It's a family reconnection project."
It also shines a light on what was a very interesting time in Haiti.
"These were recorded right after one American 'adventure' in Haiti, so there were enormous shifts in attitude there after that," Averill says. "It was definitely a fervent period for nationalism and African orientation, with Haiti viewing itself as of African heritage rather than as a weird colony. So here we are following the last American occupation, and Haiti really has the challenge to get itself into governance shape to direct its own affairs and to change the global perceptions of Haiti."
And into this stepped Alan Lomax, just 21 when he arrived, fresh off various projects with his father, folklorist and musicologist collector John Lomax, and determined to develop a comprehensive collection of African-rooted music in the Americas.
"It was a pretty heroic trip," says Averill of Lomax's journey. "It's easy to say that he went to Haiti and recorded 1,500 samples. But you have to look at the unit he had. Today I could take my iPod and put a microphone on it, but I could never record what he did. Lomax was a juggernaut and as stubborn as they come. That was both a good and bad characteristic: He put people off, but he would go and do this. He was relentless. He was sick and lost a lot of time, weeks where he was unable to record, weeks where he had no money, weeks sick with malaria. And still you get 1,500 recordings and movies."
All of it, though, languished until archivist Matthew Barton came upon the material a decade ago while at work developing the 'Deep River of Song' series from the Lomax material in the Library of Congress. Averill, then teaching at New York University, was brought in by the Lomax family to sort through, compile and annotate the material. Technologies became available to restore the material to listenable states, with plans to restore the entire 50-hour collection for repatriation to Haiti. And soon former Warner Bros. Records executive David Katznelson was brought in to discuss releasing "hidden treasures" from the Lomax archives on his independent Harte Recordings label. He expressed particular interest in the Haiti material, leading to the new, elaborate box featuring extensive notes and historical context from Averill and others.
Even Averill was stunned by what he found, and not just the comprehensive reach of the collection.
"There's some strange stuff in here," he says. "Even as jaded as I can get, there are things in there I could not believe I was hearing. Gut this guy playing a fiddle for contra dances in the south. And I've heard a lot of fiddle in Haiti but nothing like that -- scratching away on the fiddle with an aberrant tuning."
But if it's overwhelming and perplexing at times to even a scholar such as Averill, how are the rest of us supposed to make sense of this? Where to even start? Averill suggests a few tracks, in addition to the Surprise Jazz selection above.
One, 'Gede Nibo, yo fè rayi mwen' ("Gede Nibo, they hate me"), comes from Vol. 7, which features recordings by Francilia, a young woman who worked for Lomax and his wife (they actually got married in Haiti during this project):
'Gede Nibo, yo fè rayi mwen'
"This is an adversary song, meaning a song that speaks about conflicts the protagonist is having with others," Averill says. "In the song's lyrics, she or he calls on a number of Haitian Vodou deities [lwa] to help, including Gede Nibo, a deity who guards the graveyard and thus the boundaries between the living and the dead. This is sung by a young woman from the town of Carrefour Dufort named Francilia, whom the Lomaxes hired to keep house. She turned out to be a wonderful singer and to have a large repertory of sacred songs [like this one] and secular songs as well."
The lyrics, he notes, paint a picture of deep distress:
Papa Gede, Yawe
I don't know what I've done to make the sinners hate me
Gede Nibo they shall see
I don't know what I have done to make the scandalmongers hate me
Next he picks "Lisya-o komè, sa w vle" ("Lucia-o, sister, what do you want?" from Vol. 9, 'Songs of Labor and Leisure':
'Lisya-o, komè sa w vle'
"This is a work brigade or konbit song sung by two older gentlemen with the accompaniment of a struck hoe blade. This is an example of the kind of music that motivates work brigades over long days of toil for neighbors and family members."
And from Vol.4, 'Rara -- Voudou in Motion,' he draws the boisterous song 'Pa mele nan betiz-sa' ("Don't get involved in that obscenity") by the ensemble LeRoux Charyopye:
'Pa mele nan betiz-sa'
"This is a rara, or a performance of a parade music closely related to Vodou but that takes place during Lent," he says. "The honking sound of the musical accompaniment is made by single-note bamboo trumpets called vaksins -- pronounced like 'vaccines.' The lyrics are often obscene or topical, and the dancing goes on for days as the bands wind themselves through the neighborhoods on their route."
Ultimately, Averill sees this release having profound impact well beyond the Haitian community, breaking long-held misconceptions and stereotypes.
"The truth is, the country was very isolated in the West and there are actual practices that are far more African in nature than you find elsewhere in the New World," he says. "But it's a very diverse country and this will establish that very well, that even in the 1930s it was very diverse -- elite and urban as well as peasant and rural. There's Vodou of various types, not one model of religion but a set of practices at home and in the community with Catholicism. That Haiti is a country in which people get the external glimpse of poverty, but on the ground live is lived in joyous and creative ways. We have to continue to see the people behind these stories or it's too easy to say that's the way it is."
Lingering fears, he says, erect barriers for nations in the global community.
"'We can't go to Haiti because it's full of zombies and bloodthirsty Vodou worshipers' -- those images have really hurt Haiti in the world. These recordings will help break that apart and show what we humans share, about family and where our food's coming from and if you're a Boy Scout. There are Boy Scouts on these recordings and people will say, 'Boy Scouts in Haiti? What the hell?' The political songs, it's like political culture all over the world. I love those moments in which the humanity of Haiti is able to connect with others, stir us empathetically. Empathy is a fundamental human reaction that allows us to make connections. And this helps to do that."
Isn't that a lot to put on a 70-year-old collection of recordings?
"Yes!" Averill says, emphatically and confidently. "It's really a delight to have this in a tangible form, stirring the waters. I can't wait to see what happens."