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Alan Lomax in Haiti
By now, everyone should know about the field-collecting work done by folklorist Alan Lomax. He's the man who found Woody Guthrie and recorded him for the Library of Congress, as well as immediately elevating Guthrie to mythic status. He followed that one by finding Leadbelly, helping him sing his way out of prison and recording him, as well as taking him on the concert circuit as the singing prisoner. He also made field recordings of southern plantation work songs and prison songs.
What a lot of people are not aware of, though, is that Lomax's field collecting took him to other shores. In 1936, the Library of Congress sponsored a collecting trip to Haiti, where he recorded more than 50 hours of native Haitian music on aluminum discs. The material seems to have sat on the shelf until the 1970s, when he tried to edit it and discovered that the music was too messed up -- too much surface noise and sound distortion -- to be released. He abandoned the discs and that was the story for another 30 years until the technology was developed that could clean them up.
Now, digitally cleaned and reworked, the music has been released in a 10-disc set, each volume organized around a theme. And how is it? You'd expect scholars and reference librarians to go crazy over these discs, but the amazing thing is exactly how much fun this music is to listen to. It is not simply a thing for folklorists to pore over in search of footnotes. No, this is music; this is performance as well as social and cultural history.
First off, the sound is superb. The people at New York City's Magic Shop have lived up to their name; what they have done with the raw material is simply astonishing. The horns ring clear and full, the string instrument sing and the percussion -- these recordings are full of percussion instruments -- slams and bangs sounding near enough to have you up on your toes, doing weird and strange dances.
The music also shows you how universal good tunes are. The first disc is given over to a sort of Haitian jazz that uses melodies similar to those of early Duke Ellington -- if I'm not mistaken, some of them they actually are Ellington melodies -- but puts them through a local wringer that takes all the New York out of them, replacing it with island magic. The tunes sound as if they could be the soundtrack to Betty Boop cartoons -- that's meant as a high compliment -- if Betty Boop had been an island creation. There is even piano jazz that sounds like it could have come out of a 1930s Kansas City supper club.
When you get to the religious music, though, you lose the jazz influence. These tunes are the sort of call-and-response, a cappella types you'd hear in a southern church, except they really aren't. There's a darker and deeper tone to them, due partially to the use of hand shakers as percussion instruments that hints at the hidden mysteries they contain.
In the vodou worship chants, we hear the hidden mysteries more clearly. These are chilling and powerful and when you realize Lomax was at the ceremonies and not reproducing them in a studio, the chills grow. You feel the magic in the night air, even 80 years later and a few hundred miles away.
Each of the discs is magical in its own way and if you've got any interest in world music, folklore or musical and cultural history -- or, for that matter, if you just like the good stuff -- you're going to want to hear this set.
The review disc I got did not include the two books: Lomax's Haitian field journal and a hardcover collection of liner notes and essays detailing and translating each sing in the set. I'm therefore unable to evaluate them.
The music, though, is superb.
Michael Scott Cain
2 January 2010
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