Alan Lomax in Haiti

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

In 1936, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax stepped off of a Colombian steamship and onto Haitian soil. Only 21 years old, the young Lomax carried 155 pounds of luggage and special recording equipment. He was on a mission to capture the music and cultural sounds specific to that Caribbean Island. It had only been two years since the US had pulled out of Haiti, following a 15-year occupation. Alan Lomax wanted to document the aural experience of the island during this time of transition. The result of his work was over 1,500 recorded items, with more than 50 hours of music and film footage. This valuable resource has been sitting in Library of Congress for over 70 years, unavailable to the public… until now.

A new box set released by the estate of Alan Lomax in conjunction with Harte Recordings is now available and delivers the wide range of music that Lomax had captured during his trip. While advanced for the time, Lomax recorded the music on aluminum discs, which did not prove to reproduce the sound well. Although the portable technology he used was advanced for its time, the sound it captured was still uncomfortable for casual listeners to experience. With the help of modern technology these recordings have been filtered, re-mastered, equalized and given a treatment equal to a rebirth. The result is a crystal clear sound that allows the listener to escape to another time and another world.

The box set is stunningly beautiful and thoughtfully constructed by designer Barbara Bershe. It brings to life the adventure of traveling to Haiti and experiencing a cultural and musical era nearly lost. There is a map of Haiti with Lomax's personal annotations in the margins. His field notes have been lovingly reproduced replicating his original notebook. A separate bound book serves as a supplement to the music and elucidate the significance of each recording.

Haiti is a product of its colonial history and thus bears a wide spectrum of cultural influences. The Spanish were the first Western occupiers, and it was subsequently colonized by France; it also served as a key way station for the Western slave trade. All of this influenced the development of Haitian culture, which is intricately layered with the histories of Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and America.

There are ten discs within the box set. Each one captures the wide range of cultural influences in Haiti during the 1930's.The discs are dedicated to Vodou ceremonies, Méringue, French Romances, the love music of the troubadours, traditional children's songs, songs of labor and songs of worship.

The fact that these recordings are now available to the public allows for a rediscovery of a lost moment in time. There has been very little documented of Haiti during this time and even less has been passed down through the larger modern culture. Many of these styles of music are extinct today. Had it not been for the miracles of modern sound technology, the passion of the producers , and the participating ethnomusicologists, these cultural gems would never have reached our ears.

While it is priced at Amazon at $129, the box set is a beautiful document of culture, befitting a man like Alan Lomax. While most record labels count their pennies to make their year, it's comforting to know some labels are more interested in preserving history with style.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.