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Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince, 2017 - Part 1

Mark Sullivan By

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Now in its eleventh year, the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince has a unique collaborative structure. Every year several of the countries with embassies in Port-au-Prince sponsor an artist, giving the event a distinctly international flavor.
Part 1 | Part 2

Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince
Port-au-Prince, Haiti
March 4-11, 2017

Haiti: the only nation in the world established as the result of a slave revolt; home of Vodou. Haiti: poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; subject to devastating hurricanes and earthquakes. Most potential visitors to Haiti are likely to focus on the second view of the country, especially after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake which caused massive building collapse and loss of life in the capital Port-au-Prince, as well as nearby cities. Despite a strong rebuilding effort there is indeed still ample evidence of the earthquake. There are collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince, roads in need of repair (as there have always been, due to the poor economy), and even national monuments in downtown's main square the Champ de Mars have not all been fully refurbished. Many of the rebuilt structures have been permanently altered: they tend to have fewer stories, to improve structural integrity in the event of another earthquake.

But Haitians are nothing if not resilient. Driving into Port-au-Prince from the airport, the vibrancy of street life is immediately evident. The first experience of city traffic is unforgettable: narrow streets with few lane markings or street signs, even rarer traffic lights, and motorcycles zipping in and out with little warning. Not to mention keeping an eye out for pedestrians and dogs in the road! It's all a bit alarming at first: a real Third World shock for the First World visitor.

Now in its eleventh year (the fourth year was cancelled due to the earthquake: the foundation that runs it got permission to use their grant funds to support homeless musicians), the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince has a unique collaborative structure. Every year several of the countries with embassies in Port-au-Prince sponsor an artist, giving the event a distinctly international flavor. The sponsoring country flags are prominently featured in the festival program, and ambassadors often introduce their countrymen from the stage at the concerts. Sponsored artists typically perform at least twice over the course of the festival. Sponsors this year included Germany, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Spain, the United States, France, Haiti, Martinique, Panama, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Many of the concerts are free: this year Monday-Friday were unticketed, five of the eight nights of the festival.

The opening night at the historic Parc Historique de la Canne à Sucre (a former sugarcane plantation) began with a Rara band (which provided intermission music throughout the festival). Rara is Haitian festival music, performed on drums, trumpets made from bamboo or metal pipes, and percussion. It's electrifying: energetic and loud. It did a wonderful job of establishing a sense of place, as well as firing up the crowd, which was encouraged to sing along with the Creole songs that form the repertoire.

The festival opener was Canada's entry, vocalist/pianist Carol Welsman in a trio with guitar and bass. The instrumentation recalls Nat "King" Cole, and so does the breezy swing feel. She opened with "Somewhere Beyond The Sea," then did Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again" as a samba. Excellent support from guitarist Pierre Cote and bassist Rémi-Jean Leblanc. She sang Jobim's "Quiet Nights" in Portuguese—then the rain began to fall. She soldiered on with "Why Don't You Do Right?," a song associated with Peggy Lee (sung with just guitar and bass accompaniment—a nice showcase for the rhythm section), and Monk's "Round Midnight," which included new Creole lyrics that delighted the crowd—and I am told that her pronunciation was excellent. But the set was cut short as the downpour became too much for audience and performers alike. Her performance on Monday was much drier, even though it was also an outdoor venue (there are few suitable indoor venues to choose from in this tropical city). It was a similar set, with the notable addition of a version of "My Favorite Things."


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