After the earthquake of January 2010 devastated Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince and much of its hinterland, Steeve Valcourt, a young singer-guitarist steeped in Haitian roots music, and his friend and fellow singer Jonas Attis were frustrated and upset. “The earthquake — it was the first time we had experienced anything like this,” Valcourt tells the Voice. “And Jonas and I, we were just musicians. We didn’t know how to help.”
The answer lay just behind their music studio, in the Port-au-Prince district of Delmas. A vast temporary housing camp had sprung up there for people who’d lost their homes. Valcourt and Attis grabbed the tools of their trade and went in. “We brought our guitars and drums, things that didn’t require electricity, and we spent a day creating an ambiance,” Valcourt says. “We’d go every day for an hour or two. Eventually it led to new songs.”
Six years later, with the disaster still relevant in Haitian life but nevertheless in the rearview, Valcourt and Attis are touring the United States as part of Lakou Mizik, an accomplished roots-revival collective that traces its origins in part to that moment. The nine-member band, which features Sanba Zao, a celebrated elder drummer, amid a lineup of young rising stars, last month released its debut album, Wa Di Yo, on the U.S. global-music label Cumbancha — and on May 6 the band plays Brooklyn’s BRIC House as a highlight of Selebrasyon, a two-month arts biennial in New York that kicked off its second edition last weekend.
“Lakou Mizik is part of the renouveau [renewal] of Haitian roots music,” says Régine Roumain, the founder of the Brooklyn-based Haiti Cultural Exchange, which runs the event. This is welcome news. Roots music, or mizik rasin, one of the great Afro-Caribbean varieties, got its start in Haiti in the late Seventies and flowered after the oppressive Duvalier regime fell in 1986. It blends a panoply of traditions — vodou, with its rich repertoire of drum patterns from religious ritual; rara, its distinctive long horns regularly heard in street parades; twoubadou song, which often features accordions — into virtuoso ensembles. The best known in the U.S. is probably the Grammy-nominated Boukman Eksperyans, but for the most part, says Roumain, roots music “stays in a Haitian community niche…. It needs to broaden.”
In Haiti too, mizik rasin has grown less ubiquitous as its main players have entered the uncle-and-aunt generation. Today, you’re more likely to hear Kreyol hip-hop, DJ-based electronica, and the eternally popular konpa (an analogue to merengue or salsa) thumping through the streets of Port-au-Prince. Valcourt himself — though a sharp guitarist and the son of roots musician Boulo Valcourt — is also a solid rapper. Attis, who comes from a family steeped in rara, makes his own music, blending the parade sound with dancehall reggae.
With Lakou Mizik, these musicians seek to close the generation gap. Wa Di Yo has everything to please a purist: vodou incantations on “Bade Zile” and “Parenn Legba,” the carnival song “Panama’am Tombe,” and “Peze Kafe,” a beloved folk tune. The presence of Sanba Zao and cameos by the elder Valcourt lend extra heft. But there are also rap interludes, and the cathartic title track, which translates as “We’re Still Here,” has the sweep of a pop anthem. In concert, Valcourt hints, they’re liable to mix things up even more freely.
The group’s reboot of traditional Haitian sounds owes partly to a foreign instigator. In 2010, Valcourt and Attis met American producer and filmmaker Zach Niles — who turned up in Haiti in the months after the earthquake — at a studio session. Niles was interested in improving Haiti’s international image by documenting its musicians in the manner of his previous subject, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, which formed in the wake of that country’s civil war.
“Here was someone who came from far away who wanted to bring new energy to the old songs,” Valcourt says. “We were up for it.” They sought out other artists: the young rara horn players Peterson “Ti Piti” Joseph and James Carrier, plus a church singer, Nadine Remy, who overcame her initial suspicion of the collective’s vodou energies. What began as jam sessions turned into something bigger. “At some point someone called us to do a show,” Niles says. “The multimedia project kind of melted away, and instead it became a band.”
The group chose a name that pays homage to the music itself: Lakou is a semi-mystical term for “home” — one’s home compound, but also one’s roots; mizik simply means “music.” Today, while the earthquake remains central to the band’s origins, it no longer defines them. That’s also true more generally of Haitian arts today, according to Roumain. “The earthquake was a cataclysmic event that will continue to be part of our lives,” she says. “That’s there. But there is also a desire to not let that be the only narrative. You have to be intentional about moving forward.”
Lakou Mizik are looking forward to a new blossoming of roots music. It took awhile to get noticed, but now, Valcourt says, they play sold-out concerts. “Something clicked. People feel they’re in their lakou, in their garden.” Old-guard members of Boukman Eksperyans often turn up at their shows. “We’re adding new elements, a young energy and feeling, but we’re not pioneers,” Valcourt says. “We’re just mixing colors that were already there.”
647 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
May 6 at 8 p.m.