You wouldn’t expect great music to come out of a disaster but that’s the story of Haiti’s Lakou Mizik a collective experiment that’s still reaching its peak, some five years on.
Between ongoing political and economic disorder and intermittent challenges from nature, the level of poverty in the Caribbean island nation was already about the worst in the western world when a decimating magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck on Jan. 12, 2010, further trashing living conditions for many of its 10 million inhabitants.
In the ensuing months, American music manager-producer Zach Niles was part of an international relief effort, directed more specifically at aiding the country’s cultural footing. A decade earlier he had been part of the effort that created Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars in West Africa. Now it was time to preserve and encourage what was left of Haiti’s musical culture.
Niles first made it down to Haiti about a month after the earthquake to help at the new Artist Institute (built with help from the We Are The World Foundation) in the city of Jacmel. It was soon apparent to him that music was really at the core of Haiti’s cultural identity and he remains Lakou Mizik’s international manager-spokesman today.
“It made sense to use music as a way to connect people positively to a place that seems to only get negative coverage. I returned in October to kick start the project and that when I first met Steeve and Jonas.”
That’s a reference to his chief collaborators, Steeve Valcourt (guitar, vocals) and Jonas Attis (vocals) who wound up being unofficial leaders of a new multi-ethnic, cross-generational collective. They hatched the idea one night in Valcourt’s basement in Haiti’s capitol Port-au-Prince.
“Lakou Mizik really started as a project, an idea to work with different types of musicians from around Haiti and record them while doing a short documentary portrait of their lives. At some point we were invited to play a concert and at first I said ‘we’re not really a band’. Then Steeve and Jonas said ‘why not?’, so we played that first show in November of 2011 and there was no going back. We all felt like there was something special there and Lakou Mizik the band was born.”
That name translates roughly as “town music” in the language of Haitian Kreyol but “lakou” also denotes a holy place in the context of Haiti’s ancient Vodou religious rights.
Before the group could be introduced to the world Niles was hired to oversee building an audio studio at the Artists Institute in Jacmel. After honing their sounds in live performance Lakou Mizik became the first band to record there in February, 2015, with the album Wa Di Yo, a reference to the phrase “You Tell Them (we’re still here)”. Produced by Montreal guitarist Chris Velan (who also adds guitar) and released in April, 2016 on the worldbeat label Cumbancha, it went on to garner wide critical acclaim and spots in many best-of lists from last year.
Eight-member Lakou Mizik is really a melange of styles and influences reflecting the age range and backgrounds of musicians who run from their twenties to sixties. Along with multiple singers and percussionists they tackle guitars, bass, accordion and the traditional cornets or fixed-pitch horns (originally of bamboo) that add a unique dash of Carnival fanfare.
Hybrid as it may be, the music is all about Haiti as Niles explains:
“Haiti is truly a melting pot of influences with a singular history, from the French-descent accordion we highlight to the West African vodou rhymes, American soul and Jamaican dancehall.“
It starts with traditional folk songs and chants that helped found the nation after it became the first outpost of freedom for African slaves in the new world in the early 1800s. A key part of that involves the influence of Vodou religion, rooted in Africa, mixed with echoes of American gospel, rhythm and blues and other Caribbean grooves. Finally, there’s the rocking sound of rara from Haiti’s carnival culture.
“Each musician has really brought their own flavor to the band. Sanba Zao is the vodou music legend who the whole band looks up to, who helps to keep them grounded in traditions. He knows all the cultural rhymes and teaches the younger members. But Jonas Attis and Steeve Valcourt, as younger songwriters, bring their own styles, and Nadine Remy and Lamarre Junior coming from the Church background bring a harmonic arrangement that’s unique. Under it all is the rara rhythm.”
Wa Di Yo offers a mix of traditional songs adapted and expanded alongside new original works.
“The idea was to bring these songs into the modern era and re-popularize them before they’re lost, a type of cultural preservation in our eyes. The originals are written by Sanba Zao, Steeve Valcourt and Jonas Attis. Most of the songs are in Haitian Kreyol, but the more traditional ones like the prayers have Kreyol mixed with older words from African languages brought over by the slaves.”
The group’s latest singles and video releases (precursors to the next album) speak well for the way that live touring has helped Lakou Mizik’s sound to evolve. While basic issues like maintaining the band’s instruments continue to be a problem but they have managed to tour abroad extensively since the debut album, serving as cultural ambassadors for a rich culture.
“Haiti has such a universal mystique surrounding it. In some ways it has served well, but in other ways there is a negative perception of the country that goes back decades before many of Lakou Mizik’s musicians were born, representations of Vodou, ideas about political instability, even the AIDS epidemic. These have all been painted in false, broad strokes that affect the way people see the and interact with Haiti. I always feel that connecting people through music and dance has a positive effect. It peels back the mystery a bit and connects us all in a common language.”
Lakou Mizik (Haiti)
Where: Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Gallagher Park
When: Main Stage, Thursday, Aug. 10, 7:10 p.m.,
Sessions: Friday, Aug. 11 7:30 p.m. Stage 1, and Saturday, Aug. 12 5:45 p.m. Stage 6
Tickets: Single-day passes still available from the box office (780-429-1999)
For complete details see edmontonfolkfest.org