Like New Orleans, Haiti has experienced great suffering — poverty, disease, natural disaster.
So perhaps it’s only fitting that a week after an unlucky Haiti marked the third anniversary of its cataclysmic Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, it is one of New Orleans’ great musical sons — jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis — who will open this year’s Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival.
“Being from New Orleans, Haiti has a kind of mythic status there,” said Marsalis, 52, who performs Friday in Jacmel at the Tourism Port and again Saturday in Port-au-Prince at a former sugar cane plantation-turned outdoor concert venue, Parc Historique de la Canne à Sucre.
“We have a lot of similar traditions; relationships with Vodou, with music and with rhythm that’s very, very different from all of the states in the United States,” he said.
Like New Orleans, Haiti was colonized by the French — and that, says the bandleader from one of America’s premier jazz families, helps give “Haiti a very different vibe” rhythmically and culturally.
That vibe comes alive this week as Marsalis joins two dozen jazz musicians from Germany, Cameroon, Haiti and elsewhere, in a series of distinct performances that show how far jazz has progressed since its birth in the American South. And as with previous years, visiting artists will hold workshops for local Haitian musicians and students during the day, and perform at night at concert venues and local restaurants around the recovering Haitian capital. All of the shows, with the exception of Friday’s in Jacmel, take place in Port-au-Prince.
With Marsalis opening the festival, Cameroon bassist and vocalist Richard Bona will close it out Saturday, Jan.26. Bona, who once served as musical director and arranger for Harry Belafonte, sings in English, French and his native Doula.
Now in its 7th edition, the festival was launched in 2007 by Milena Sandler and her husband, drummer Joel Widmaier. Widmaier’s dad, Herby, has been promoting jazz in Haiti since the 1950s on a weekly radio program. He later promoted concerts in Haiti featuring some of the biggest names in American jazz.
The fact that the festival is once again attracting international jazz headliners like Bona and Marsalis to Haiti, speaks volumes, said Sandler.
“We have the capacity,” she said, “to offer to the local audience exceptional performances, and to the young musicians an opportunity to benefit from workshops given by these musicians.”
And with Marsalis being the biggest jazz star to come to Haiti in recent years, Sandler said: “We feel that this edition will be the best ever.”
For Haitian jazz enthusiasts, Marsalis’ visit is long overdue. He was previously scheduled to perform at the festival in 2011, but his appearance was canceled due to political upheaval created by a disputed first round presidential election. The show went on without him.
Organizers say it hasn’t been easy planning this year’s festival. A concert planned for the Champ de Mars, the public square in front of the razed presidential palace that partially collapsed in the quake, had to be canceled after the ministries of tourism and culture announced they had to cutback on their promised financial support. The U.S. Embassy, which is sponsoring Marsalis’ visit, also had to step in to save the Jacmel concert. Organizers also were forced to cut back on expenses, Sandler said.
In all, there will be a dozen foreign jazz artists and their bands. They are being flown to Port-au-Prince by the cultural offices of their country’s respective embassy in Haiti. There are another 13 local jazz bands and Haitian musicians from the diaspora who also will perform.
“It’s just phenomenal to see musicians from Canada to Brazil to the Caribbean, all the way from Europe; all of these people coming together to a tiny, impoverished country like Haiti to show that they can play together,” said restaurateur Miriam Padberg, whose upscale Quartier Latin restaurant in Petionville, a tony suburb above the hills of the capital, has been hosting the festival’s after hours jazz sets from the inception. “We have many talented musicians in Haiti and they are able to see...you can make a living at this. It brings a lot of hope to a different sector in Haiti that is often times overlooked.”
If New Orleans is the city where jazz was born, then Haiti is the place where it is being reborn but with a distinct Caribbean flavor. Called Creole jazz, it often joins traditional Vodou rhythms, conga drums and classical jazz chords.
“There’s a very strong cultural relationship I think with Haiti,” said Marsalis, who recently spent a week in Cuba. “A lot of New Orleanians are from Cuba and from Haiti.”
Days before his trip, Marsalis, who had never visited Haiti before, was excited. Not only was he looking forward to impromptu performances alongside local Haitian musicians, but also exploring Haitian cuisine and other aspects of the culture. He was also confident of his upcoming performances.
“It’s definitely going to be different than what they are used to,” Marsalis said before his arrival. “There will be a pulse to what we do that the people can relate to.”