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1930s recordings preserve Haiti's cultural wealth

The Associated Press, Wednesday, February 24, 2010, 4:00am (PST)

MIAMI (AP) -- At 21, Alan Lomax went to Haiti and recorded its citizens making music — songs about Voodoo, carnival politics, children's games and the first airplanes crisscrossing its Caribbean skies in the late 1930s.

He preserved the sounds on aluminum discs for the Library of Congress, but they were largely forgotten for seven decades as they sat in the library's archives. Recently discovered, they were compiled into a box set released last fall. Haitian music scholars called it a "cultural archive" that documents the daily triumphs that get missed whenever a crisis in Haiti makes the news.

The catastrophic earthquake last month that killed more than 200,000 people was the latest crisis. Now, the set's curator hopes "Alan Lomax in Haiti" will teach people that Haiti's culture remains intact, even when so many of its arts institutions have collapsed. Music from the 10-disc box set, released by Harte Recordings, is featured in three radio public service announcements seeking aid for Haiti.

"It's too easy for people to just periodically feel sorry for Haiti," Gage Averill said. "Very few people except those who travel to Haiti understand just how much Haiti has to offer, how lovely a country it is, how generous a country it is."

Lomax was a newlywed ethnomusicologist when he set out to record the music of Haiti in 1936 and 1937, just following a 15-year American military occupation of Haiti. He lugged his equipment into the mountains beyond the capital, Port-au-Prince, in search of ordinary people instead of polished performers and ended up with 1,500 recordings. Ultimately, digital copies will be returned to Haiti, as some of Lomax's recordings from other Caribbean countries have been returned to those islands.

He found a wide range of music, from Boy Scout troops, religious processions, dances and bands of sugar cane cutters who brought back rhythms from Cuba. Many of the Haitian Creole lyrics convey the impact of poverty and life in close quarters. There also are songs about Haiti's global isolation after its slave rebellion and French ballads.

"The French romances (ballads) are not about courtly affairs and knights, but about the first time someone saw an airplane," Averill said.

When the earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, the box set's collaborators looked for a way to use the music to help the relief effort. It could show a different picture of Haiti than just a country of rubble; it also could immediately restore something that was lost, they thought.

"My feeling was, at a time like this, people don't just think of bread and water all the time," Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, said. "They think of everything that is jeopardized in their lives — everything in their culture."

Actor Fisher Stevens and Kimberly Green, president of the Miami-based Green Family Foundation, produced the radio PSAs. Like other urgent appeals for donations after the earthquake, they feature celebrities — Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller and Sting — seeking pledges to The Clinton Foundation and Partners in Health.

"This is Haiti," the celebrities say over three music clips selected from the box set. They note the country's stature as the first black republic in the world after a slave rebellion succeeded in 1804, then its proximity to the United States. Only in closing do they note Haiti's poverty and previous disasters.

The three songs selected for the PSAs share a sense of danger, Averill said. In each, the singers call out to the gods for help, but they also prepare to take matters into their own hands if an adversary comes to close.

In a carnival song, a community girds itself against an unseen adversary. A song from a Voodoo ceremony implores the gods to soothe some trauma and relieve the singers' agony. Lastly, in a procession of sacred music, the band honors a particular supporter with a refrain that's still familiar, more than 70 years after it was recorded.

The refrain of one song indicates some beliefs have not changed much since Lomax's time. "After God, the priest," a rara band sings, honoring the entities they considered supportive. After the earthquake, some Haitians uttered a similar refrain, describing the entities most likely to help them: "After God, the United Nations."

Green said she hopes to broadcast Lomax's recordings on Haitian radio stations as they come back on the air, to inspire the preservation of culture even if museums and concert halls won't be rebuilt for years.

"I hope it can provide some solace to people, some strength," Lomax Wood said.

———

On the Net:

The "This is Haiti" public service announcements can be heard at http://www.greenff.org/

"Alan Lomax In Haiti" box set: http://thehaitibox.blogspot.com/

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