Music Of Late Musician Explores Haitian Culture

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The late Alan Lomax brings the sound of Haiti to life. Recordings that Lomax made decades ago are now being released as a 10- disc box set, along with a journal and other artifacts from his trip to Haiti. Host Michel Martin speaks with Gage Averill, an ethnomusicologist and a professor of at the University of Toronto. Averill was the project's curator and is joined by Ellen Harold, Alan Lomax's niece who also worked on the project.


And finally, a rediscovered recording project brings voices from Haiti's past back to life. The late Alan Lomax learned his trade as a folklorist by working with his father John Lomax, recording the field songs of black sharecroppers in the American South. In 1936, at the age of 21, Alan was dispatched to Haiti by the Library of Congress; his mission, to record and film the music and culture of the Haitian people.

In a little more than a year, Lomax and his newlywed wife, Elizabeth, made some 1500 recordings, capturing rare music and sounds across the country. Here's a sample.

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: The collection is now being released as a 10-disc boxed set, along with Lomax's journal and other artifacts from the expedition. Joining us, now, to tell us more from Toronto, is Gage Averill. He is an ethnomusicologist and a professor at the University of Toronto, he was a project's curator. And in New York, we're pleased to welcome Ellen Harold, Alan Lomax's niece, who also worked on the project. Welcome to you both.

ELLEN HAROLD: Thank you.

GAGE AVERILL: Thank you, nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, Professor Averill, this project was started in 1936...

AVERILL: Yeah (unintelligible)

MARTIN: ...what took so long to hear these recordings?

AVERILL: I could describe when I had first encountered this, and this was in interacting with Alan's daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, who was running the archive. And she asked if I'd be willing to work on this project and curate it. And I said what recordings? And I was a specialist in Haitian music, so I had no idea that there were these 1500 recordings sitting in the vaults of Library of Congress. And I think that was true - they were just unknown.

Alan hadn't written very much about them in his time, and so they are literally sitting in stacks, covered by cardboard covers, all that time.

MARTIN: Ellen, can you tell us a little bit more about what Alan Lomax and Elizabeth Lomax's conditions were, working in Haiti at that time. It was a pretty tumultuous time in the island's history, as I recall.

HAROLD: Well, I think it was a time of hopefulness, because the Marines had just withdrawn and they had left a representative government there and there was a great interest among Haitians in their African heritage. And as far as their conditions, Alan arrived there - and of course he was very lonely and immediately caught all kinds of fevers. And his fiancee, Elizabeth, who was then 19, arrived somewhere in early February. And she actually made the films that are included in the box.

MARTIN: Do you happen to know what the process was that they used to record this material? I'm thinking now, you know, we could wander around in something that would be the size of a credit card, you know?


MARTIN: Well, I think it wasn't like that then.

AVERILL: This was not a credit card. Imagine a very large box weighing 55 pounds and it had two turntables on the top. And it would record directly onto 10 or 12 inch aluminum discs with a stylus. So he'd be (unintelligible) the recording with a disc playing, and it would scratch or etch the sound into the disc. So, in addition to carrying the 55 pounds of recording device, he also had to carry stacks and stacks of aluminum discs, because each of these recordings (unintelligible) just as little as three or five minutes. So, there's a lot of weight to carry around.

MARTIN: Ellen, can I ask one other thing. I understand that he was sick a lot when he was there. Is that true? So in addition to...


MARTIN: ...lugging around all these equipment, he was sick a lot?

HAROLD: They were sick and they went out into northern part of Haiti and they were paying people, you know, a small sum when they could, to record. And so people started coming and camping out in their house in order to play for them. And because they were sick they couldn't get rid of them. It was really quite a dilemma at times.


MARTIN: Oh dear, I'll think next time I complain about the hotel accommodations when I'm on an assignment. Ellen, you mentioned that that Alan and Elizabeth arrived there after the Marines had left - the U.S. Marines had occupied the country from 1915 to 1934.


MARTIN: And he's arriving, just a couple of years after the Marines had left. How did people respond to this couple wandering around with this stuff, wanting to record their music?

HAROLD: Well, I think they were delighted that someone wanted to record their music.

MARTIN: Let's play a recording and then you can tell us more about it. Here it is.


AVERILL: This is called "Mesi Papa Vensan," which means thank you father Vincent. And it's for the president, the first president of Haiti following American invasion. And this was a jazz band playing at an elite club on Christmas Eve.

MARTIN: I was going to say, it sounds like a jazz that Americans would have heard.


MARTIN: Do you think that there was a cross influence, as it were, where Americans heard Haitian music...

AVERILL: Without doubt.

MARTIN: ...and were Haitians hearing American music at the time.

AVERILL: The Americans stationed in Haiti during their occupation were hearing Haitian music. And the Haitian musicians were also hearing jazz and dance band music from them, and turning it around into, like, local merengue jazz fusions. So it was - there was quite an active cross-fertilization at the time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Gage Averill and Ellen Harold about the great folklorist Alan Lomax and his time in Haiti. Professor Averill, who do you think will appreciate this?

AVERILL: Well, there are, as we've seen in the past 30 years, a growing number of people all over the world interested in kind of encountering new sounds. This is going to be a - quite a new repertory for people. I mean, there's everything in this, from Boy Scout songs of the 1930s to old Mardi Gras and carnival songs that are topical. So these are dealing with the issues in the 1930s. So there's people who love Caribbean music, who will find a great deal in this. I think it's going to have enormous affect on people interested in issues of cultural equity and cross cultural encounters around the world.

MARTIN: Ellen, you mention that some of the religious music of voodoo ceremonial music was recorded. I'm going to play a short clip and hopefully you can tell us a little bit about that.


Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Okay, tell us about this song?

HAROLD: I can tell you that from the diary that - that Alan said that he really wasn't that focused on ethnography and explaining the theology of voodoo, but that he did want to document the sound of it.

AVERILL: That's what separated Alan from all the other people working in the country, is that his methodology was focused on his sound recordings, right? So he - other people were describing them or notating them or talking about the context, but Alan left this archive. In this case, what you're hearing is - was recorded at the first voodoo ceremony ever recorded, more or less in its entirety.

So this is a ceremony in Pompuday(ph) for what they called breaking the cakes, or sharing the cake. And this is song for Damballah, who is a deity associated with snakes. And the song simply says, Damballah (foreign language spoken) or Dumballah Wedo, which was the name of the deity, the sign of the snake.


Woman (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: These recordings are so old, and yet there's - it's - they're sort of a discovery, really, a kind of a new discovery. They're important to the library of Congress, but also, I would think, to the people of Haiti. What do you think we will find in these recordings? Ellen, why don't you start?

HAROLD: Well, I think it's going to be a wonderful thing for the Haitian people, because the Association for Cultural Equity, they had ongoing repatriation project to make these available in Haiti. And Kimberly Green, of The Green Foundation, have said that preservation to support cultural identity is an integral part of poverty mitigation.

MARTIN: Really? Why?

HAROLD: Well, because when people hear and they know their own past, it often is very empowering. Alan certainly found this when he recorded people. He would play it back to them. They would be delighted.

MARTIN: Do you think that, perhaps, there are, say, children growing up in Haiti who would have never had heard, maybe, the music of their forbearers.

AVERILL: Sure. Not just children, but many of the elder that we consulted with and we'd call about this material, hadn't heard this, maybe, since the time of their early youth or heard about some of this music from their parents. I remember, I was asked to introduce Katherine Dunham, this very well known African-American dancer who had been in Haiti just before Alan. And I was up on stage and was about to introduce her, I looked down on my computer and I remembered, I have, you know Alan's 1,500 recordings, including about 300 that were made with friends of Katherine Dunham in the same Peristyle, or same temple that she used to visit.

I went over to her and I said Ms. Dunham, would mind if I played, you know, old friends - Tali Marse(ph) - and she was thunderstruck. She had never heard any of this and knew that it existed. And got up to speak afterwards in tears, talking about how I had, in my computer, a govi, or a spirit repository, which is a notion from Haitian voodoo. And so, all along, that kind of notion that we are in some ways stars and guardians of all this cultural richness and personal investment was a real motivating factor to try to get this out and to do the job.

MARTIN: Gage Averill is the curator of the newly released 10 CD boxed set titled, "Alan Lomax in Haiti." He joined us from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation studios in Toronto. We are also pleased to be joined by Ellen Harold. She is Alan Lomax's niece and she also worked on the project. And she joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

AVERILL: Michel, thank so much.


MARTIN: That's our program for today.

I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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