Saturday, January 01, 2011

Alan Lomax's Incredible Haitian Recordings.

One of the most remarkable reissues of the past few years was the reissue of material from field recordings Alan Lomax made in Haiti in 1936 and 1937. These were issued on Harte Recordings and ironically at the time, Haiti suffered the catastrophic earthquake and according to the Harte Recordings website, they are still donating $15.00 of each sale from that site to Haitian relief efforts. The following review originally appeared in the March 1 to April 15 Jazz & Blues Report (issue 324). I received a CD from a publicist of the audio files and pdf files of the books included in the actual box set.

Between 1936 and 1937, folklorist Alan Lomax spent several months in Haiti documenting the folk traditions and music of its people. Haiti had been under American occupation for 19 years before American troops were withdrawn in 1934. Lomax had been engaged in research accompanied by NYU Professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and novelist Zora Neale Hurston,and had recorded African American communities of Frederica, Georgia and Eatonville and Chosen, Florida. According to Ellen Harold “The multi-ethnic migrant labor camps of Belle Glade, Florida attracted Bahamians and Haitians, whose dancing and drumming were more markedly African than anything they had seen. The three researchers were inspired to want to collect music of the African diaspora outside the United States. “ (From Ellen Harold’s Introduction to “Haitian Diary – Papers and Correspondence from Alan Lomax’s Haitian Journey 1936–37”).

While in Haiti, Lomax recorded over 50 hours of recorded music and film footage with over 1500 items, and hundreds of pages of field notes. Lomax had long intended to have released this material. During the 1970’s, he planned to contribute an encyclopedic collection culled from the U.S. and Caribbean oral traditions he regarded as fundamental sources of black culture and history in the Americas and while collections. He “mapped out a series of LPs that included music from eight U.S. states and the Bahamas—but not, alas, from Haiti. Although made with the latest in 1930s portable recording technology—a Thompson aluminum disc cutter and an RCA Velocity Microphone—the Haiti recordings were filled with too many hisses, pops, and sound dropouts to listen to comfortably.” (From Anna Lomax Wood’s Foreword to the book with notes on the recordings). However with advancements in audio technology and sound restoration along with a commitment by Gage Averill, the foremost authority on Haitian music, Gage Averill, it became possible to consider the project. It still took a decade of digging through the archives, painstaking research and sound restoration to make this project possible.

And so the Alan Lomax “Archive’s special mission has been to return digital copies of Alan Lomax’s collections to their places of origin. Thus we have also restored, digitally cataloged, and pre-mastered all fifty hours of the Haiti recordings and filmed sequences so that they may be deposited at Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL) and at the Haitian Ministry of Culture. “ (Anna Lomax Wood in the forward). Additionally, this research and sound restoration has led to the release of a ten CD box set, “Alan Lomax’s Recordings In Haiti: 1936–1937,” including over nine hours of music along with a 168 book describing Lomax’s fieldwork and discussing all of the included recordings and film footage and Lomax’s Haitian Diary, with papers and correspondence from this field undertaking. The notes in the accompanying book by Averill are a key to understanding the variety of performances collected and made available in this compilation issued on Harte Recordings (

Given the amount of music and supporting documentation, it is probably best to give a description of the contents of each of the ten discs rather than go into detail about any specific performances, although certain items will be highlighted. Material in quotes, other than Disc titles are taken from Gage Averill’s discussion of the recordings. Disc One is devoted to “Meringues and Urban Music From Haiti,” and that “[b]y the mid 1930s, the méringue (Croele spelling: mereng) was considered by most urban Haitians to be the national music of Haiti.” The presentation here included a group “Surprise Jazz” that Lomax recoded when he “attended the bal (ball) given for President Stenio Vincent at the elite social club, Club Thorland, near Port- au-Prince.” Also recorded were two parlor performances by Ludovic Lamothe, that Lomax referred to as Haiti’s foremost musician. Other recordings include several by the dance band Orchestre Granville Desronvil, and three songs by noted author Zora Neale Hurston.

Disc 2 is devoted to small groups that Lomax “called malinoumbas groups (some- times manoubas or manoumba) after the name of the large boxlike “thumb piano” on which a player sits and plucks metal tongues suspended over a sound hole,” which is also referenced here as Haiti’s rustic troubadour music. The Third Disc is devoted to the music of Mardi Gras and Carnival. It is noted that some of the musicians playing in the small malinoumbas groups also played in more specific groups such as for Carnival and one will note some of the same names here and in other contexts.

Disc 4 is entitled Rara: Vodou in Motion. While an earlier visitor to Haiti, William Seabrook wrote a sensationalist book on Haiti and vodou that inspired the Hollywood notion of zombies and other aspects that bore little relationship to reality. Before Lomax came to haiti, Hurston warned him that Haitians considered the author William Seabrook to be an “awful liar.” Lomax approached this part of expressive culture in a more serious fashion and here captures the rara bands which is part of the public service of the saints (also known as Vodou). The annotation helps explain this aspect that “may be among the most difficult to describe and explain succinctly.” It should be known that this aspect of Haitian expressive culture has historically been subject to public repression and Lomax had to be somewhat discreet in these recordings.

Disc Five is entitled Haitian Songs By and For Children, and the book notes that limited education and hard life of many Haitian children. Many children songs were French in origin which like reflect the influence of the Catholic Church in which French was spoken and children were forbidden to speak in Kreyol, the language that developed over its French origins for several hundred years. In the book it is noted that while what attracted ethnographers to Haiti in the 1930s was “encountering vigorous African traditions in the New World. Indeed, descendants of African slaves had preserved cultural expressions from African nations stretching from Angola through what is now Senegal. ...[Y]et the legacy of French colonization was also in evidence everywhere. “ Lomax documented the French legacies, collected in Disc 6, “Flowers Of France: Romances, Canticles, And Contredanse,” not only in the elite art of urban Haitians, but “in rural contredanses, in the canticles sung before Vodou ceremonies, and in children’s game songs in small towns.”

Disc 7 is devoted to “Francilia: Rèn Chante (Queen Of Song).” Averill explains “As a folklorist of this period, one of Alan Lomax’s strategies was to seek out singers with a large repertory of songs that had been transmitted in traditional fashion (intergenerational and community or home-based transmission). Francilia fit this bill to a tee. She was from a peasant family and was untrained in singing, and her gift was practiced largely in the home and in the temple. In addition, she had a lovely voice with a great range and beautiful tone.”

Disc 8 is titled “Seremoni Kase Gato / The Breaking-of-the-Cakes Ceremony at The Le Roux Habitation,” that Lomax claimed was “the first Vodou ceremony ever recorded within an ounfò (temple).” Averill further comments “This recording is thus of great historical importance, due to its place in the history of recorded Vodou ceremonies. It is also unique within this collection, because Alan Lomax supplied almost all of the notes and texts needed to make the two-part ceremony come to life after all these years. And this recording is important for a third reason as well: the Le Roux habitation and the home of Dr. Reiser and Cecile was where famed dancer, choreographer, actress, and activist Katherine Dunham was exposed to Vodou, and where she was initiated as an ounsi only months before Alan’s arrival.” The final two discs are Disc 9, devoted to “Songs of Labor and Leisure” and Disc 10 “Worship in Carrefour Dufort,”and Mr. Averill provides the applicable background. Throughout we are given transcriptions and translations of songs. Several of the films that Lomax took are also included along with the aural recordings.

This is a massive undertaking, both in terms of the cultural preservation that was undertaken in making this available and the production of this remarkable box set that makes available this rich body of ‘folk culture” from over seven decades ago and the remarkable packaging that includes the invaluable book on Lomax’s stay and the performances presented here along with the Diary of Lomax’s Papers and Correspondence from his Haitian Journey. There is a blog on the Alan Lomax in Haiti boxset, Information on purchase should be obtainable from that site and as I type this (February 23) they had a reduced price with $15.00 of every purchase going to Haitian Relief.

1 comment:

Juan-Carlos Hernandez - Photographer said...

Thanks Ron for your comment on my Ron Carter photo.
I follow your blog since some time and it is really interesting. The article of today is incredible, a great way to begin the year.
Have an happy 2011 !