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Music Interviews
4:12 pm
Sat April 5, 2014

A Music Of Exile: Haiti During The Duvalier Years

Originally published on Sat April 5, 2014 5:19 pm

From Ricky Ricardo to the Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban music has always seemed to find big audiences here in the U.S.; for lots of people, it's become the sound of the Caribbean. A new compilation hopes to expand our horizons a bit by introducing the sounds that came out of Haiti, before and during the Duvalier regimes. It's called Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978.

"The Haitian sound was something that was extremely important across the Caribbean at the time, but has been ignored for whatever reason," says archivist Hugo Mendez, who produced the collection. "It's been difficult to get your hands on, so the idea behind the compilation was to represent music that has been very important for many people, but has not been available, say, in America or in Europe."

Mendez unearthed 28 lost recordings. In the process, he got to know some of the people who played this music, many of whom had to flee the country to avoid the abuses of Francois "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. One of those musicians, José Tavernier of the band Ibo Combo, joined Mendez and NPR's Kelly McEvers to talk about how these volatile years shaped Haiti's musical profile. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Again, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

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MCEVERS: Whether it's Ricky Ricardo or the Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban music always seems to find big audiences here in the States. It's become the sound of the Caribbean for a lot of people. Well, a new compilation might expand our horizons a bit by introducing the sounds that came out of Haiti before and during the Duvalier regimes.

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MCEVERS: The record is "Haiti Direct," and this song was recorded in 1969 by a band called Tabou Combo. Archivist Hugo Mendez produced the album.

HUGO MENDEZ: The Haitian sound was something that was extremely important across the Caribbean at the time but has been ignored for whatever reason. It was being difficult to get your hands on. And so now the idea behind the compilation was to represent music that has been very important for many people but has not been available, say, in America or in Europe.

MCEVERS: Hugo Mendez unearthed 28 lost recordings. And in the process, he got to know some of the musicians who played the music. Many had to flee Haiti to avoid the abuses of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. Jose Tavernier was one of these exiles. Before making his way to New York City and eventually Miami, he had a band in Haiti called Ibo Combo.

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JOSE TAVERNIER: We were the first young Haitian who could play music in Haiti, because usually our family, well, musician was mostly womanizer and alcohol drinker. So they didn't want any part of that for their kids. So we got together, and we played at the Hotel Ibo Lele in Haiti.

MCEVERS: I also read somewhere about some late night parties back in the Ibo Combo days when you were playing at the hotel where all the elites would hangout. You know, you'd play the regular set, but then sort of, there was a late night scene. I'd love to hear about that a little bit.

TAVERNIER: Well, OK. After, let's say 3:00 a.m. in the morning when we stopped playing, somebody invite everybody to his house. And sometimes, it was almost noon when I'm going back home. Crazy. That was Saturday. You know, they don't work Saturday and Sunday in Haiti, so sometime I spent two, three days out. Great and big, big, big party.

MCEVERS: That's one of these times I want a time machine.

TAVERNIER: Yes.

MCEVERS: And what kind of music were you playing?

TAVERNIER: That was a, you know, what they call kompa.

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TAVERNIER: Kompa was a derivative of the merengue. Merengue is the dance of the slave. And the slave on Saturday, they could get together and dance. That's where came the merengue. And from the merengue, Nemours Jean Baptiste in 1955 revised it a little bit slower but with all the pep and everything.

MCEVERS: With all the what, the pep?

TAVERNIER: The pep.

MCEVERS: Yes. Nice.

TAVERNIER: The pep, you know, that, you know, keep you, drive you.

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MCEVERS: Hugo, I wanted to ask you, how does this style of music change over the period that you cover here on this compilation? It's, you know, it starts in 1960, ends in 1978.

MENDEZ: In the '50s and the beginning of the '60s, a lot of the music was based around a larger big band format which was similar to bands in Cuba or even in America. That was with jazz or Latin bands.

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MENDEZ: And then the mini-jazz movement, which Jose was instrumental in beginning in the early '60s, reduced the number of people in the bands and slightly changed the format. So you bring more electric guitars or reduce the horn section.

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MENDEZ: And then it re-expanded towards the end of the '70s with larger bands coming out with horn sections again with the different styles of the music.

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MCEVERS: I'm speaking with Hugo Mendez and Jose Tavernier about the new compilation of Haitian music from the '60s and '70s called "Haiti Direct." Jose, how did musicians operate under longtime Haitian ruler Papa Doc Duvalier? He took over as president in 1957. We know it was a repressive regime. How did that influence the decisions you made as musicians at that time?

TAVERNIER: Well, that's a long story. I'm going to make it short for you, OK? Our country was called before the Pearl of the West Indies, right?

MCEVERS: Mm-hmm.

TAVERNIER: And unfortunately, everything went sour. People start leaving the country. And, well, like everybody else, myself in 1966, I had my batting contour with what they had called Tonton Macoute and I had to leave the country.

MCEVERS: And these were the militias that sort of ruled the land under Papa Doc, yeah?

TAVERNIER: That's right.

MCEVERS: Hugo, I mean, did you find this with a lot of the musicians you researched for this compilation, it became a music of exile?

MENDEZ: To a certain extent, yes. The record, if it were being sold of Haitian music, yes, they would mainly be sold in New York or Montreal because the expat community maybe had more disposable income than people in Haiti to begin with. It was a way of recalling life in Haiti, but it was a way of keeping the community together as well, and the music stayed very solid wherever Haitian communities sprung up in the world.

MCEVERS: And then for the musicians who stayed in Haiti, how did they continue to express themselves under Papa Doc's government and later his son's government?

MENDEZ: I think that a lot of the subject matter of the songs is there's not so much political subject matter certainly in the '60s and '70s as the '80s. But much of the music was good time music.

MCEVERS: So the music at that time was strictly entertainment. There were no sort of double messages going on?

TAVERNIER: Nothing, nothing, nothing as political or nationalism, nothing like that. They played entertainment.

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MCEVERS: And Jose, when you listen to this compilation, I'm sure you recognize, you know, familiar voices. Does it bring back memories for you?

TAVERNIER: Thank you for asking me that. But I wanted to say thank you first to Hugo for what he did.

MENDEZ: Thank you.

TAVERNIER: That is a great work. That's going to put our music in the world now. Thank you, Hugo. Secondly, to answer your question, yes, when I played those two CDs, almost tears come into my eyes. That was emotion. It was like I was reviving my beautiful work. And thank you.

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MCEVERS: That's Jose Tavernier. He was a member of the Haitian band Ibo Combo. We also heard from Hugo Mendez, the archivist behind the compilation of Haitian music called "Haiti Direct." Guys, thank you so much for doing this.

MENDEZ: Thank you very much.

TAVERNIER: Thank you, Kelly. Thank you very much for having me.

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MCEVERS: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. Tomorrow, we meet the Green family.

SONIA GREEN: I'm Sonia Green.

HOLDEN GREEN: And I'm Holden Green. I'm 10.

MCEVERS: Holden is a pretty happy fifth grader. He's also in danger of getting seriously sick. That's because Holden was born without part of his immune system, which means vaccines don't work for him.

GREEN: You know, when people say, you know, oh, but your boys look so healthy. You'd never know there was anything wrong with them. I tell them very honestly that part of what keeps them healthy is the fact that we live in a community where most people are vaccinated.

MCEVERS: But in some communities, vaccination rates are declining to critical levels. That story, tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.