Archive for Haiti

Alan Lomax in Haiti

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 15, 2009 by Jack

I’m sure many readers will be already aware of the work of the pioneering folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

He’s famous for having travelled around the globe from the 30’s onwards collecting songs and musics from many different peoples. He played a key role in documenting the blues in the US, recording important interviews with the likes of Lead Belly and Muddy Waters. Through radio shows and other media work he introduced many different kinds of music from around the world, such as gamelan, to a large US audience for the first time. In Scotland he’s known for collaborating with Hamish Henderson to record singers such as Jeannie Robertson. He famously advocated for rock n roll as a music that combined the black and white cultures in America to create something new. And he was also the subject of multiple FBI investigations during the McCarthy era.

But an aspect of his work that hasn’t come to light until recently is a 1936 expedition he made to Haiti on behalf of the US Library of Congress. His aim was to record the sounds and images of the island as part of a much larger project of tracing the history of African folk culture in the Americas. Such a mission was a very different proposition than it might be today with easily portable digital recording technology-he dragged 155 pounds of luggage around Haiti for months, in the face of lack of money, bureaucratic obstruction, technological limitations and bouts of malaria.

Haiti in 1936 was just emerging from 15 years of occupation by US troops, who had recently left leaving a fragile government in control. The occupation dismantled the previous constitution, and treated workers on projects like building roads as virtual slaves. Following the removal of foreign forces, the country was in a period of transition, reflected culturally in a renewed interested in its African cultural origins, which were traditionally frowned upon by the island’s elites.

The recordings that resulted from the exhibition add up to 50 hours of sound, along with six films and Lomax’s own extensive diaries of the trip. All of this material lay largely forgotten in the Library of Congress for 60-odd years, until a massive effort to digitise it all was undertaken and it was recently released as a 10-CD boxset, accompanied by two books of the diaries.

All kinds of music for many different contexts can be heard on the recordings, including work songs, romances, carnival music, sacred music of the Vodou religion and even children’s songs. The music reflects the roots of Haitian culture in Africa, but also the strong influence of French music from colonial times as well as the spread of Spanish and Latin American styles from neighbouring islands.

The archive is especially valuable within Haiti itself, where many of the musical forms of the 30’s have been forgotten and evolved without recording facilities to preserve them. The Association for Cultural Equity, the foundation which continues Lomax’s work and legacy, is working to make the full archive available for use in Haiti, allowing people a window on their own cultural past that helps illuminate the many kinds of popular music made in Haiti today. For example one of the recordings contains a medieval form hymn singing that came to Haiti via the colonial power France, and that was thought long since lost.

Although such a big set is probably a pretty major investment for most readers, there are a couple of places online where you can hear a lot of the material. Check out the blog The Haiti Box, as well as the video clips and other material on the Association for Cultural Equity site.