Alan Lomax's Haitian Time Capsule

A 10-disc box from the '30s captures a troubled nation in transition

Haiti's cataclysmic 7.0 earthquake is, unfortunately, just the latest in a long line of tragedies to befall the country since its Spanish and then French colonization, portending centuries of slavery and exploitation for the indigenous Taino people. Once the Europeans were finally kicked out in 1804, things didn't improve: One of the first predominantly black countries to gain its freedom, Haiti has endured 32 coups since.

In light of terrible events recent and otherwise, what to think of Alan Lomax in Haiti, a new 10-disc set that collects unreleased Library of Congress field recordings from Lomax's travels there in 1936-7? Beyond a new charitable hook ($15 from the box's revised $110 retail price goes to Haiti relief efforts), the perspective here is unchanged: This is a time capsule of music and culture from a country enjoying a new freedom after 19 years of U.S. occupation, and already casting those traditions aside as it struggles to redefine itself. Acutely aware of this, and at the urging of folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, Lomax (then just 21) and his wife, Elizabeth, spent four months there trying to capture the music before it faded into the past.

Hailing mostly from West Africa and the Congo, recently arrived Haitians brought the rhythms of their homeland with them: the same percussive underpinnings that show up in Dominican merengues, Cuban danzón, and Martinique beguine. Drums and voice dominate much of this collection, though Lomax offers an impressively varied mix of agricultural work songs, boy scout troops, Carnival drums, Catholic canticles, classical pianists, Creole song-stories, French romance songs held over from the occupation, jazz bands, violin societies, and Vodou songs.

Pics (and 10 discs' worth of recordings) by Alan Lomax, 21
Alan Lomax
Pics (and 10 discs' worth of recordings) by Alan Lomax, 21
Pics (and 10 discs' worth of recordings) by Alan Lomax, 21
Alan Lomax
Pics (and 10 discs' worth of recordings) by Alan Lomax, 21

The lavish packaging features a replica of Lomax's field journal, alongside a second book of essays, translations, and notes by such luminaries as curator and noted Haitian-music expert Gage Averill. The material is grouped thematically by CD with such titles as "Rara: Vodou in Motion," "Mardi Gras and Carnival," and "Rustic Troubadour Music." Embedded as MP4's onto the fifth disc are six short films (totaling 10 minutes) of ceremonies, dancers, and musicians, alongside footage of those who gathered to watch them.

A passionate egalitarian, Lomax was never one to record big stars, instead fixating on local, everyday folks of varying talent. As such, not all of the 287 songs included here (of the 1,500 tracks he recorded onto aluminum discs) are great music—the children's disc, with its choral nursery-rhyme singing, tends to drag. ("Pinga Way-o" consists of kids singing the title over and over for 1:48.) Conversely, those wondering how the well-heeled elite partied can look to the "Meringue and Urban Music" disc, which approximates both the Creole music and swing jazz of the time. A highlight is Surprise Jazz's version of "Mesi, Papa Vensan," a popular merengue at the time dedicated to Haiti's then-president Sténio Vincent, who actually hosted the ball where this was recorded.

More unique and certainly less political is the hugely important "Breaking-of-the-Cakes" disc, which includes parts of the Saturday-night dance ritual (the party goes on all night) and the more subdued 45-minute Sunday-morning ceremony. Vodou is still a big part of Haitian culture today, and this is believed to be the first audio recording of a Vodou ceremony recorded in an ounfu (temple). While much has been made of the members becoming possessed by various Vodou Iwa (spirits) during these ceremonies, it is truly haunting to hear the call-and-response as it occasionally evokes, in sound and cadence, Christian prayer.

There is also a disc devoted entirely to the couple's housekeeper, Francilia, graced with some of Lomax's highest-quality recordings. As innocent and pure as a mother singing to her children while she hangs up the wash, Francilia has a good range and was strong enough to carry a melody on her own, though she occasionally breaks out in laughter as she sings songs mostly culled from Vodou ceremonies. She accompanies herself on maracas, with the assembled audience joining in to clap occasionally (when not doing a proper field recording, Lomax often recorded at whatever house he was staying in). Adding to the purity of the moment, you can hear car horns and other sounds of everyday life.

While probably only scratching the surface, this is still an impressive, 75-year-old portrait of ancestral voices in a bygone country. The fact that it exists at all is important—imagine all the cultural artifacts lost to the earthquake and past upheavals—and it's done with such care that it's a golden key to understanding Haiti's past, present, and future.

 
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