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- Posted on Nov 23rd 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
Frantz Casséus and Barbara Perlow, 'Meci Bon Die'
Right, about that. 'Meci Bon Die' is not traditional. It's a composition by Haitian-born classical guitarist Frantz Casséus, as heard in a recording of him and singer Barbara Perlow on the newly released 'Haitiana' album, a collection of 1969 sessions. The album fills out a small catalog of Casséus recordings, complementing two '50s sessions: 1953's 'Haitian Folk Songs' (largely duets with singer Lolita Cuevas, including some interpretations of actual folk songs) and 1954's 'Haitian Dances' (solo guitar compositions, including the colorful 'Suite No. 1').
"For years, whenever I saw a Haitian-looking name on the permit, I would ask Haitian cab drivers if they knew Frantz's music," says Ribot, the ace guitarist and musical adventurer who oversaw the release of the new album via Smithsonian Folkways Records. "Almost all did."
But, he adds, "Many of the recordings and tapes people heard it on had been bootlegged so many times and the songs copied without attribution that some had come to believe that songs like 'Meci Bon Die' were actually traditional, anonymous or public-domain pieces."
Ribot's knowledge of the truth was not a matter of mere scholarship. He'd heard this music since before he was a teenager, directly from the composer, a close family friend from whom he took guitar lessons. Casséus, who had dropped out of law school in Port-au-Prince and moved to New York, was befriended by Ribot's parents and aunt and uncle, getting an apartment nearby with their help – a rarity in the early '50s when segregation was the norm even in "liberal" New York, Ribot says.
Ribot is best known for the spiky playing that has been central to key works by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and 2007's Grammy Award album-of-the-year 'Raising Sand' teaming of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, with a strong canon of his own recordings ranging from bracing avant-garde to highly personalized interpretations of Cuban repertoire. But he's also made the legacy of Frantz Casséus (who died in 1993 at age 78) a mission, releasing the 1993 album 'Marc Ribot Plays Solo Guitar Works of Frantz Casséus' and compiling and editing the book 'The Complete Works of Frantz Casséus' in 2003, accompanied by an extensive essay/history in Bomb magazine
"I can't remember the first time I met Frantz," he says. "I was probably two or three years old. Frantz would often play at family gatherings, maybe partly because he was bored, partly because he liked it. I remember Frantz laughing because I used to stand in the doorway and watch while he warmed up. 'He even likes to listen to me tune!' he said to my aunt."
And while the edgy, challenging sounds for which Ribot eventually became known seem a long way from Casséus' classicism, he credits his mentor for both techniques and sensibilities that are at the core of his musical being. He learned to use his fingers rather than playing with a pick, and to break "seemingly impossible tasks" into small components and learning them by diligent repetition until he could put the whole together. And, in a roundabout way, difficulties adapting classical approaches to electric guitar led him to embrace guitar heroes known for their effectively economic playing – he names Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Hubert Sumlin, leading to "the series of insights/limitations which later became known as my 'style.'"
And, crucially, "Frantz as a human being taught me that one can carry a heavy burden lightly if you carry it for someone or something you love."
So he takes very personal interest – and perhaps a mix of dismay and bemusement – as the art has become culturally removed from the artist.
Of course, even the most "traditional" music originated somewhere with someone before being absorbed into a cultural fabric. And, notes Ribot, since long before the digital age, in Haiti as elsewhere, music recordings have been copied – without authorization – and passed around.
"Most music was bootlegged, often by very small operations, much was third-, fourth- or fifth-generation copies on cassette or [later] CD, and much was missing info such as the name of the composer or even, in the case of mix tapes, the artist," he says. "Lacking this information, it's understandable that in time some people began to mistake classical guitar music which had been inspired by folk themes for folk themes developed by a classical guitarist."
It's also testimony to how deeply those inspirations ran through Casséus' compositions that they could be taken as folk tunes. Arguably, the classical approach stands apart from the tumult of Haiti – from its time as the center of the slave trade, through violent revolutions, repressive regimes and, of course, such disasters as the recent earthquakes and hurricanes that have left the country in poverty and disarray, all seemingly captured in generations of music tied deeply to African origins. But to Ribot's ear, Casséus embraced the full range of the Haitian experience.
Frantz Casséus, 'Dance of the Hounsies'
In some ways it's the opposite of Hungary's Béla Bartók or Brazil's Heitor Villa-Lobos, 20th-century composers who tapped their regions' folk traditions to inspire and inform and, often, explicitly incorporate into their classical inventions. Ribot also points out that where Bartok and Villa-Lobos wrote in a variety of formats, including full, extended orchestral piece, Casséus' canon is almost entirely focused on solo guitar and guitar-and-voice settings.
"But I think the comparison is accurate in that all three were classical composers who used their countries' folk traditions as source material and inspiration."
And as a performer, Casséus was very much a classical artist. He even headlined Carnegie Hall with a solo recital of Milan, Bach, Scarlatti, Sor, Giuliani, Villa-Lobos and Rodrigo. That there's any confusion regarding to which world he belonged is something that Ribot has considered and on which he is passionate, insightful and articulate.
"I argue for Frantz's inclusion in the classical tradition not because I believe in any inherent superiority of that tradition but because 1) that's how Casséus understood his own work, 2) his work is no less contemporary or formally intricate than most of the classical guitar repertoire currently being performed and recorded and 3) I find in the frequent confusion of Frantz's work with a folk tradition some underlying assumptions I believe to be racist."
"Frantz was the son of a civil servant in Port-au-Prince. He somehow came into contact with an Austrian classical musician who taught Frantz and a number of other musicians of his generation how to listen, read and play in the European classical tradition. He studied and later performed Bach, Weiss, Sor, Tarrega and the rest of the repertoire of his time. His ideal was Segovia.
"He dropped out of law school in Haiti to become a classical guitarist. All his compositions were meticulously through-notated. He wasn't a rural Voodoo practitioner – although sounds of traditional drumming were certainly part of his aural environment – along with jazz from the radios of occupying US Marines, merengues played at social gatherings and the aforementioned European classical music.
"Although Frantz's family wasn't rich, there were important religious, class and social differences separating Frantz from Haitian folk music and its mostly poor and rural practitioners. It wasn't until after an intellectual critique of the effects of colonialism had begun to circulate, which Frantz absorbed in the literature of the Negritude movement that Frantz began to see Haitian folk musics in a different light. I don't know if this is true, but my aunt – who made extended visits to Haiti with Frantz several times – told me that Frantz first attended a voodoo ritual in the late '60's, in the company of an American tourist.
"So, like Villa-Lobos and Béla Bartók, Frantz Casséus was an intellectual and classically trained musician who saw and embraced his own country's folk tradition. One may question whether he was a modernist but not whether he was within the classical tradition. And – the fact that he was recorded on the Folkways label notwithstanding – he clearly was not a folk musician."