September 5, 2012
Reposted from The Telegraph
By Mark Mulholland,Port-au-Prince
I have been living in Haiti for two years now, and before moving there what I knew of the country was largely gleaned from sporadic news reports, invariably about disasters, hurricanes (such as Isaac, which passed through the country last month with the loss of at least 19 lives), disease, poverty, riots and brutal dictators. While the problems undoubtedly exist, what often fails to reach the attention of the outside world is the richness of the culture and history of Haiti and its people, as well as the spectacular beauty of the country itself.
Independent since 1804, when a slave rebellion overthrew French rule in what was then France’s richest colony, Haiti has produced world-class artists such as Jacques Roumain, whose novel Governors of the Dew, translated into English by Langston Hughes, is a modern classic; Tiga and the painters of Saint Soleil, brought to international attention by André Malraux; and musicians such as Azor, who passed away last year.
In 2009, Haitian authors received 13 major international literary prizes. As well as the older generation of established writers, including Frankétienne, Lyonel Trouillot and Anthony Phelps, there is a vibrant scene of young poets and novelists such as Marvin Victor and James Noël. Although not yet widely translated into English, Haitian authors are becoming increasingly prominent in France, Canada and other French-speaking countries. An exhibition of contemporary Haitian art featured at the Venice Biennale last year.
The first time I met Frankétienne, shortly after my arrival in Port-au-Prince, he was asked to create a performance for the French Institute, loosely based around a selection of French classics, from Rabelais to Boris Vian, which were being translated into créole. He immediately said that he would do it on one condition: that I did the music. He had never heard my music, and I had no idea what he planned to do, but we worked together for a month and put together what turned out to be a successful show. We have collaborated on a number of projects since, and he contributed a spoken word piece to the album that I made recently with Craig Ward
I have also been working with several other very talented Haitian artists: Wooly St Louis Jean, a singer who combines traditional Haitian songs with French chanson; Chay Nanm, a group of percussionists and singers with incredible energy and presence; the singer James Germain, who spent several years in Mali and recorded an album of Haitian songs backed by African musicians; Erol Josue, voodoo priest, actor and singer; the reggae band Yizra’El; the charismatic hip-hop artist K Libr.
Although there is practically no infrastructure for music in the country – no labels, publishers, booking agents, etc – there is a wealth of musical talent in Haiti. There are a relatively small number of venues organising gigs, particularly since the earthquake, but the sounds of drums, singing or sound systems are pretty ubiquitous.
As well as playing, I have been working on music-related projects at the French Institute in Port-au-Prince. A selection of recordings of young Haitian bands made at the studio there can be heard at the following link: institutfrancaishaiti.bandcamp.com.