Sometimes I think about how the most troubled countries produce some of the sweetest, most joyful music. Think of the glorious Congolese rumba, that synergistic blend of Cuban and African music, come from a nation richly endowed in natural resources—from oil to gold and coltan, which is used in every cell phone—but which is been mired in turmoil all the way back to colonial days when it was brutalized by King Leopold of Belgium. The same is true of South Africa, where even during most savage period of apartheid, the soulful urban jive kept people going.
The same is true of Haiti. The first country in the New World to shake off the shackles of colonization—even defeating Napoleon–and become a free republic, Haiti has become the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. With the cataclysmic events there over the past month, I’ve been going back and listening to a lot of Haitian music. It is an exuberant music filled with joy and beauty. Over the past two decades we’ve seen big stars like Wyclef Jean emerge from the Fugees as a spokesman for Haitian culture. Before him there were bands like Boukman Experyans, Tabou Combo, and other groups frequently playing the East Coast and sometimes LA. KCRW often presented those shows.
Lately, I’ve been revisiting not only current bands, but also great bands of the past. A few that stick out are Haitiando, Coupé Cloué, the Mini All stars, and Issa El Saieh for the classic stuff. Issa El Saieh was the top bandleader during the 50’s in what is known as the “belle époque” of Haitian music. His parents came to Haiti as Palestinian immigrants from Lebanon; Coupé Cloué and the Mini All Stars brought us the Haitian music form known as compas, a sweet and lilting music style that has powered dance floors all over the world.
It is sweet, sophisticated, sensual, joyful, and classy music It borrows elements of Cuban son and cha cha as well as the straight-ahead 4/4 groove of African music. The lyrics are in Creole French. I recommend going back to sample some of these great bands of the past, especially Issa el Saieh, and the contemporary outfit Haitiando. Both can be found on CD Baby and I think iTunes will be carrying them soon. Finally, a good compilation can be found in The Rough Guide to Haiti.
Listen and you will get a glimpse of what makes Haitian music so wonderful and unique.