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

Mark Sullivan By

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Dutch pianist Mike Del Ferro opened Monday night's concert, accompanied by a Haitian rhythm section of bassist Richard Barbot and drummer John Bern Thomas. He had already made a substantial contribution to the festival by ceding his after hours slot to Danilo Perez on Saturday night after the rained out concert at the main stage. He has played all over the world, and his cultural references are broad. He began with a Neopolitan song, then played a Jobim tribute utilizing two songs from his deep repertoire that are rarely played: "Olha Maria" (played unaccompanied) and "Chovendo na Roseira" (a ballad with the rhythm section). "Either Of Us" had a driving rhythm reminiscent of its inspiration in Senegal.

Tuesday night introduced a fresh group of artists. American vocalist Halie Loren won an Independent Music Award for her first album They Oughta Write a Song (White Moon, 2008). Her repertoire includes jazz standards, pop tunes, and originals. At first blush she sounds more like a pop singer than a jazz one. Yet she did a convincing job on Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" and Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," and her version of "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" included the rarely sung verse. Pianist Ariel Pocock provided much of the jazz improvisation, and (unusually) also occasionally sang backup vocals, even performing a scat duet with Loren on "Blackbird." The set also included Jobim's "Waters of March" and a samba version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."

Brothers Joël & Mushy Widmaier were the first purely Haitian act of the festival. Mushy is a pianist, composer and arranger; Joël is a songwriter-composer, drummer, percussionist and singer. After years of fusing rock, pop, jazz fusion, konpa and traditional Haitian music, they created what was called the New Generation style with ZÈKLÈ, a group that was popular for ten years, touring internationally. It's an energetic, jazz fusion sound, rich with percussion (timbales, congas, and drum kit). But the opening tune had some traditional jazz flavor in the form of scat singing and a little walking bass. The second piece was an instrumental with a hot Latin groove. Joël sang a ballad which got an immediate response from the crowd—clearly one of the group's past hits, it also featured a fine bass solo and call-and-response between voice and synthesizer. Voice and synthesizer paired again for a fast tune strongly reminiscent of Weather Report. The closing tune included a vodou chant and both percussionists on congas, an evocation of the sound of a vodou rite. An exciting end to a dynamic set. The brothers made an unexpected, but welcome return on the final night filling in for a last-minute cancellation.

Singer and violinist Yilian Canizares hails from Cuba, but lives in Switzerland. Her set had a dramatic, atmospheric opening with tube trumpet, mbira (thumb piano), and chant. A lyrical violin melody finally broke into a Latin groove. She delved further into her Cuban roots with a chanson by Luis Carbonell, and another Cuban song "Dónde Amor." At times it seemed her violin playing was eclipsed by her singing, but she played one fast violin feature, as well as playing climactic violin passages to end some of the songs. She also sometimes plays violin and sings simultaneously, or jumps between them, call-and-response style. Her final number built up tremendous energy: she had the crowd standing, clapping along, and chanting. This was even more dramatic at her Friday performance. She sang in Yoruba with guest James Germain, a remarkable Haitian singer with an especially powerful falsetto range. And she brought a couple onstage to join her with vodou chanting, culminating in a lusty audience sing-along.

2nd Interlude: Atis Rezistans community of Grand Rue; Marché en Fer (Iron Market)

Atis Rezistans is an artists' collective in downtown Port-au-Prince that makes sculptures and other artworks from recycled materials: old tires, scrap metal, toys, auto parts (the community is surrounded by the makeshift car repair district)...whatever discarded materials are at hand. The effect is striking and surreal, frequently using vodou imagery as part of the visual language. The collective's work also makes a powerful social and ecological statement—art as a way of making positive use of junk in their neighborhood, a means of improving the lives of the residents, and a commentary on the failing Haitian economy.

Marché en Fer (Iron Market) is a cast iron building first constructed in France in the 1890s, then brought to Haiti. It was completely rebuilt after the 2010 earthquake, and is now once again a bustling public market, restoring a longtime Port-au-Prince landmark. Vendors offer many kinds of handicrafts (made from wood, leather, and discarded oil drums), clothing, and artwork, as well as vodou ritual supplies.


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