Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince, 2018

Mark Sullivan By

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Loide Jorge and her Jazz Quartet had been in Haiti for a few days, including a performance at the Jacmel satellite concert series. So she brought a more fine-tuned set to this show. Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" (best known from saxophonist John Coltrane's arrangement) was a new addition to her set. She had also added a well-known Haitian song which the audience recognized—"you know it better than I do," she declared—and brought a remarkable young Haitian vocalist named Jenny J onstage as a guest. Jenny is amazing for a thirteen-year old: it will be fascinating to hear more from her in the future. She also performed several songs during the after hours show.

The concert ended with a performance by RAM, arguably the best-known Haitian roots music band. The style called rasin combines Vodou ceremonial and folk music traditions with rock and roll. Their name is derived from the initials of their founder, songwriter and lead male vocalist, Richard A. Morse, and is famous for its regular Thursday night performances at the Hotel Oloffson in downtown Port-au-Prince (see the Slideshow on the first page for a photo of the stage there). Hearing them on the PAPJazz stage may be second-best, but it was still a memorable experience. The band (which included drums, voudou drums, two percussionists, two electric guitarists, electric bass, and the additional female vocals of Morse's wife Lunise Morse) opened with upbeat konpa. The second tune employed two harmonized, overdriven guitars, and the first appearance of Ra Ra trumpets (played by the percussionists). The next song was reggae—clearly well known, because after the introduction the crowd sang it unaccompanied. Then they played soukous, more reggae, and a finale with Richard and the Ra Ra trumpets processing through the crowd. One of the guitarists quoted "Auld Lang Syne," a song often used for endings of all sorts, not just New Year's.

January 27, 2018

Strings/Beethova Obas/Norman Brown/Michael Brun

For the grand finale the festival moved to a new location at the beach, the Decameron Indigo Beach and Spa Resort: a reminder that Haiti is on an island, after all. The resort is on the Côte des Arcadins, a coastal location just 90 minutes from Port-au-Prince. The contrast with the city is so great that it feels much farther away. It's a beautiful resort, and the stage set up literally on the beach was an island fantasy come true.

The opening act was Haiti's Strings, a surprise addition to the program after Thursday's rain cancellation. Their pop flamenco music was warmly received by their local fans. Founding members Jacky Ambroise and Phillipe Augustin are both still in the band: Ambroise is the composer and lead guitarist, and the full band includes two additional flamenco guitars, bass, two percussionists and drums. After a rubato solo guitar introduction they launched into their first selection, a flamenco with two of the guitars playing harmonized lines, a common arranging technique, and a treat for any guitar fan. "En Creole" was like a two-step, and included vocal parts, another recurring part of the arrangements. It certainly serves to make music which is primarily instrumental more accessible. Later in the set there was space for solos from drums, percussion and bass, all accompanied by a guitar vamp to keep the song in focus. The finale had a reggae introduction which shifted into an exciting fast flamenco. Once again "Auld Lang Syne" was quoted in farewell.

Haitian singer Beethova Obas (who was indeed named for the great German composer) has been heavily influenced by Brazilian bossa nova, but his music shows many influences. He opened with a moderate konpa, following it with a samba which the audience recognized. The next konpa went into a swing feel for a jazz piano solo. The musical variety continued with the slow son "Haiti, Mon Coeur" including another audience sing-along—many of his tunes were well-known by the crowd. When he sang his single "Asé Babyé" the audience was again ready to join in. A guest melodica player joined in for another son, then his set ended with a fade-out on a konpa tune.

American smooth jazz guitarist Norman Brown took the closing jazz spot of the festival. His trademark smooth playing style was certainly in evidence—although thankfully without most of the slick production sound of his recordings—but he's a contemporary player with wide interests, as demonstrated by the classic wah-wah funk of "Shaft" he played as the introduction. The set list leaned heavily on his breakout album After The Storm (MoJazz, 1994). He began his cover of the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You"—the first of several songs featuring his vocals as well as his guitar—scatting along with his guitar, and later conducting the audience in a scat sing-along. The scatting with guitar technique was inspired by his hero George Benson—one of the stylistic elements that still gets Brown compared to him. Yet he also played a Jimi Hendrix cover, a Wes Montgomery cover ("Bumpin'"), and a Luther Vandross cover ("For You to Love"), as well as Benson's version of "On Broadway" and one of his instrumental tunes ("Breezin'" I think). After a medley from After the Storm (including "Better Days Ahead" and "That's the Way Love Goes"), Brown closed with "Funk The People," a 1970 George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic tune. The band's fiery playing was accompanied by literal fireworks, a memorable ending to a very entertaining set. Brown's guitar technique is formidable, he's a fine singer with an easy stage presence, and he and his band have fun. So does the audience.

The grand finale was EDM (electronic dance music) provided by Haitian/American DJ Michael Brun. Brun was born in Port-au-Prince, now lives in Miami, but has maintained Haitian connections. He is known for integrating World Music sounds, including the Haitian styles konpa and rara. His set had a special emphasis on Haitian sounds, and featured periodic geographic shifts as he emphasized different countries. It was music again best appreciated by dancing, which I did for awhile before heading to bed for an early flight.

The end of PAPJazz is bittersweet. Visiting Haiti is always an adventure, but a week crammed with music and exploration can be exhausting. The festival remains the most truly "international" jazz festival I have attended. In addition to the rich Haitian flavor of the music and the event, the presence of all the participating countries is undeniable. They contribute a roster of excellent musicians, both famous and lesser known. And I can think of no other place where I have heard stage announcements in French, Creole, English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Photo credit: Ernesto Bafile



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