Review: Haiti Jazz Festival

Simon Adams is bowled over by Haiti and its jazz festival, featuring the Yellowjackets with Felix Pastorius on bass, singer Ranee Lee, Chilean trumpeter Sebastian Jordan, 12-piece roots band Boukman Eksperyans and more

After two nights, I was thoroughly confused, and a little disturbed. I was in Haiti, right? It's not exactly renowned for luxurious living, yet here I was, for the second night running, sitting in the most beautiful surrounds — tonight in the grounds of Haiti’s finest hotel, the previous night in the historic museum-park of an old sugar plantation — at a table covered by a crisply starched white tablecloth. Smartly dressed local waiters in well-pressed white shirts and black dicky bows efficiently served up the food and drinks. The clientele was well heeled and obviously affluent — they had to be to pay the $1,000 gourde ticket price (roughly £16.50 in a country where the average per capita income is £460) – and obviously enjoyed the music. So had I come what felt like half way round the world to participate in a dinner jazz festival? I sincerely hoped not, but if so, where was the real Haiti I had come to see?

On Monday night, that real Haiti came into clear view as the festival abruptly changed direction. Now relocated to the back lot of a thriving cultural centre nearer the tumult of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, the festival became a free event, throwing open its doors to huge crowds of local people who blocked the road outside as they queued up to get in. Those who grabbed the chairs were easily outnumbered by those who stood pressed against them on all sides. They lapped up the music, applauding every solo, cheering as each piece ended and rising to their feet to dance at every opportunity. How many of them had ever heard proper jazz before is debatable, but as the jazz was mixed up with the country’s musicians playing more locally attuned music, this proved to be no obstacle. I have never seen such an attentive crowd, nor such an enthusiastic one that was good humoured enough to burst into sarcastic chanting when the festival was briefly affected by one the country’s many power cuts. Even the deluge that stopped play on Wednesday night was taken in good humour.

The way that the Haiti Jazz Festival – now in its ninth year – works is laudable. Paying concerts on two weekends book-ended a week of free events that culminated in an open-air show in the capital’s biggest park. The daily after-hours shows were also free, although you would need some money to buy food and drink to keep you going long after dark. Daily workshops provided an opportunity for music students to learn from the professionals. The music policy is also highly laudable. Given the country’s location just 90 minutes flying time south of Miami, it would be easy to summon up the ranks of touring American bands to fill the hours on stage. That easy route the festival has avoided. Indeed, the ubiquitous Yellowjackets who headlined the first night were one of only two American acts out of around 20, with half flying in from Mexico, Chile, Trinidad, Canada, France, Belgium, Switzerland and the UK, and the other half from Haiti itself. Again, other than the Yellowjackets, none were that well known to me, which made the discovery of local talents and those too distant to travel regularly to the UK a particular delight. This was intelligent programming that reaped big dividends, a well-balanced festival that managed to keep everyone satisfied.

As for the music, two bands particularly caught my attention. Chilean trumpeter Sebastian Jordan led a subtle quintet that highlighted the contrast between his cool, well-paced trumpet and a more acerbic, agitated tenor saxophone. Jordan never hurried his lines, taking time to display his considerable skills in a set of largely modal pieces. Comfortable in all registers and all speeds, Jordan was a commanding presence on stage, his unison work with the saxophonist a particular delight. Even better was the trio led by the Belgian pianist Igor Gehenot (pictured left), whose latest CD Motion (Igloo Records IGL 253) comes with the imprimatur of that fine critic Stuart Nicholson. Gehenot presented a set of uncompromising music, his style essentially romantic but never florid, often sparse and never overblown. At times he developed an inward-looking Brad Mehldau groove packed with interesting melodic and harmonic developments, while elsewhere he entered his own world of carefully chosen notes packed with clever thoughts. In the overcrowded field of jazz trios, it is rare to hear one so fresh and innovative. This new pianist will make many waves in the future.

On a more popular level, Canadian singer Ranee Lee (pictured right) showed how to present contrasting sets to contrasting audiences, always stretching her vocals without lapsing into cliché. She is a good mix of Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln, so some risks were taken. Her pianist Taurey Butler, a dead ringer for Oscar Peterson in build and style, provided suitable support. The American quartet led by singer Maya Azucena covered too many bases for my liking, straining for effect across R & B, hip hop, soulful jazz and reggae without quite establishing which style she preferred. Bringing on two young rappers, who on a Sunday night I thought should have been at home getting ready for school the next day, was an inspired crowd-pleasing trick. British singer Holly Holden was due to appear at an after-hours gig as well as give a concert and a workshop but I understand that illness curtailed her schedule. A shame, as I was looking forward to seeing how she adapted to local audiences.

Of the many local musicians, guitarist Chardavoine presented soulful grooves of mainly Haitian songs, which earned him a good response, while the bass-led trio of Gérald Kébreau impressed in its finger-popping delivery and fine electric piano. Saxophonist Thurgot Théodat (pictured left) promised voodoo jazz, but that was just a teasing and misleading label to describe a seven-piece band with three percussionists that delivered tight arrangements headed by the leader’s impassioned delivery. Théodat is not a strong improviser, but his strong melodies and equally strong arrangements worked just fine. On my last night, I was hugely impressed by Boukman Eksperyans (pictured top right), a 12-piece roots band led by local Rasta-clad Lòlo Beaubrun and his wife, the singer Manzé. High-energy music with a slapstick edge provided by two young dancers, this was crowd-pleasing festival music that had the audience up on its feet and dancing.

And in case you are wondering, I did endure the Yellowjackets, but please don’t ask me to enthuse about a time-warped 80s fusion band that features Bob Mintzer’s unlistenable electric wind instrument as a solo lead. For me, the only interest in this set was to observe Jaco Pastorius’s son Felix playing bass, which he did admirably. Far more interesting was the six-piece Troker from Guadalajara in Mexico. A mélange of jazz, funk, punk and rock, this enthusiastic band made good use of samples and turntables to produce razor-sharp, often quite complex pieces that hung together surprisingly well despite their diffused contents. Some of us might have seen them play at Glastonbury recently, but for me they were an innovative and much applauded surprise.

After each evening’s concerts, an after-hours jam session took place in a local restaurant or club. Here I became aware of just how much musical talent Haiti contains. One particular night was enlivened by the presence of 27-year-old trumpet Amazan Audoine, who more than held his own in the jam session with some fluent and confident trumpet work. He first picked up the trumpet in church aged 12, but has yet to play outside the country. If he was in Britain, any respectable band would immediately pick him up.

So Haiti Jazz was a great success, but it is fair to say that the festival has its work cut out enticing people to visit the country as tourists. Haiti is living proof of JK Galbraith’s observation about private affluence and public squalor. While the Haitian people are a delight, their country is far from paradise despite its Caribbean climate and beautiful landscape. The roads are appalling and rubbish piles up in the streets. The traffic jams are endless, while the centre of Port-au-Prince is desperate beyond belief, still bearing all the scars of the earthquake of 2010 that flattened much of the capital and its surrounds and killed many tens if not hundreds of thousands. To read up on Haitian history is to be truly appalled by the massive scale of human venality and oppression its leaders, often supported by the international community and its economic and aid agencies, has inflicted upon the country and its people.

Tourists are still a rarity. Indeed, those who once reached the country by cruise ship were probably unaware of which country they were in, as the northern enclave they docked at was hermetically sealed from the Haitian world outside. Tourists are still outnumbered by aid workers and UN peacekeepers sent to restore order in 2004. Yet this is a country with a surprisingly low crime rate, its murder tally of around seven a year per 100,000 people comparing favourably with the US and well below the 24 per 100,000 of the neighbouring tourist destination of the Dominican Republic and dwarfed by the daily carnage of Jamaica, with 52 murders per 100,000. Maya Azucena’s group were escorted by a US embassy security detail to look after them, but that was a massive waste of US taxpayers’ money, for everyone else was quite safe at all times.

So while Haiti is not for the faint-hearted, this is a festival with a big heart that I would thoroughly recommend. A great variety of music, an intriguing destination and a most wonderful people to welcome you all combined to make my week highly enjoyable and most enlightening.

Photos by Josué Azor

Simon Adams would particularly like to thank La Fondation Haiti Jazz for their generous hospitality and great friendship, and Air France for their equally generous flights and most welcome upgrade

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Your Comments:

Posted by Gary, 17 February 2015, 15:35 (1 of 1)

Hi Simon, amateur crime researcher here. Haiti's murder rate is 7 per 100,000 because there's no infrastructure to tally numbers. You normally need some kind of recognisable infrastructure to count murders to any significant level. Haiti doesn't have it. That's why it's 7 per 100,000, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the real level of violence in the country. And it's clearly the most dangerous place in the Caribbean, head and shoulders above everyone else. Ask any reputable security company. Case closed.

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