Both musically and politically Haiti has been an island that has historically been ignored and largely forgotten. For world roots fans that is a great pity because there is an impressive and rich musical heritage to discover and UK/European releases have been distinctly thin on the ground. A Rough Guide compilation from 2001 put together by long-time Haitian enthusiast Andy Kershaw whetted the appetite with enticing names such as Tabou Combo, Super Jazz des Jeunes and Nemours Jean-Baptiste, but this only scratched the surface. UK label Earthworks released a few laudable Haitian albums with Coupé Cloué and the Mini All Stars being praiseworthy recordings, but still a whole nation’s recording legacy was largely unknown. In the US and Canada Haitian diasporan communities created ex-pat labels with Miami and New York being especially strong while in Paris cultural connections with the rest of the French-speaking Caribbean had long been under way with Haitian bands being influenced by the sounds of zouk from the 1980s
The arrival, then, of a more substantial overview of the Haitian music scene by enterprising label Strut is most welcome, compiled this time round by Paris-based DJ Hugo Mendez, and is not a moment too soon. One of the double CDs many merits is that it contains extensive inner liner notes that help to shed light on the rapidly evolving music on the island and the extent to which this has been directly influenced in turn by the constantly shifting political situation. A major impetus was provided by the coming to power of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier dictatorship which, in line with other post-colonial states, initiated a policy known as ‘authenticity’ by which music would become an integral part of creating a new national identity. At the same time, musical developments were already underway. The big band era of the 1950s gave way to smaller formations in the 1960s that looked to French yé-yé (French pop that mimicked the new British pop groups and singers of the time) and both UK and US pop and rock musicians. By the 1970s these influences had been digested and horn sections in a different guise re-emerged, but with myriad pan-Caribbean influences that ranged from merengue (a disputed musical style that the Dominican Republic regards itself as being the originator of) to Cuban-influenced vocal harmonies and latterly the French speaking islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
All these sounds come together on this wide-ranging anthology. The highlights are too numerous to mention in their entirety but they include numbers such as the uplifting ‘Ti garçon’ by Ibo Combo, Tabou Combo’s terrific ‘Ce pas’, the Cuban flavoured ‘Homeaje a los ambajadores’ by Les Ambassadeurs and for some truly tropical grooves from a bygone era Orchestre Tropicana d’Haiti and ‘Poun paciance’. For fluent speakers of French the Creole language will be of great interest in itself. In fact the names of the groups are of themselves evocative of a dynamic, if at times extremely on the edge, island. These include the Black Wolves, the Vikings, the Fantasists of the Crossroads and the Difficult Ones from Pétion-Ville. Full marks to Strut for taking a chance with an island’s music that is not as yet sufficiently familiar to world roots fans and in some ways is akin to the early 1970s discovery of Jamaican music and culture. For an early year fresh discovery this new compilation could hardly be bettered.