The 'Roots And Grooves' Of Haiti's Wind Master, Omicil Jowee If Wyclef Jean is the best-known Haitian artist in the U.S., then Jowee Omicil would likely qualify as the most eclectic. Omicil's mastery of just about every wind instrument turns his latest album into a musical world journey from Afro-jazz to Haitian kompa to soul.
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The 'Roots And Grooves' Of Haiti's Wind Master

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The 'Roots And Grooves' Of Haiti's Wind Master

The 'Roots And Grooves' Of Haiti's Wind Master

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, my commentary on why we all need to pay attention to the news this week, even if we don't want to.

But, first, back to Haiti for a minute. Actually, back to one of the many gifts that Haiti has given us. A rich musical tradition is surely one of them. But as Wyclef Jean is one of the best known artists of Haitian ancestry in the U.S., Jowee Omicil would likely qualify as the most eclectic.

His mastery of just about every wind instrument, combined with his extraordinary ability to mix sounds has turned his new album, "Roots and Grooves" into a musical world journey. It roams through Afro jazz, Haitian Kompa music, soul and gospel.

We caught up with Jowee Omicil earlier this month to talk about his latest album and the presidential elections in Haiti, where his friend, singer and candidate Michel Martelly, also known as Sweet Micky, was working hard to energize the youth vote. Before he performed for us, I asked him to first introduce his band.

Mr. JOWEE OMICIL (Musician): Today with me I have on drums, Harvel Nakundi, who represent Haiti and Zaire. And then I have on the tabla, Jeff Deen, who actually is very active here in the community. He represents India. And I have Carlos Alabaci from Venezuela who is playing the upright bass. And I also have on the keys, Harold St. Louis, who's from Haiti, basically. So, we all rule it and it's a great combination right here.

MARTIN: Hi, everybody.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, hi, everybody.

Unidentified Man #2: Hey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We're getting a collective hey from everybody. Okay. Well, thank you for that. You are, as we've mentioned, of Haitian descent. You were born in Montreal and you live in Miami now. Would you just tell us a little bit about your musical roots? I mean, I understand that your dad was a minister. Did you grow up in a musical household?

Mr. OMICIL: Actually, I didn't really, you know. But there was an instrument being played at some point because my older sister, Lyette(ph), she played the organ for the church. But I don't really recall her practicing much. And basically that's how I grew up. My dad was a minister teacher. And, you know, plenty of gospel music, Christian music.

And why I mention my dad so much is because I lost my mom when I was five. So I don't really have a bright scope of recollections of her, you know, of souvenirs, per se. But, you know, my dad was really active and he's an amazing man.

MARTIN: Was your first instrument the saxophone? Do I have that right?

Mr. OMICIL: Yeah. My first instrument was, yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, how did you pick that up?

Mr. OMICIL: Well, you know, my dad, again, you know, he wanted me to play an instrument to accompany the church, so he suggested that my brother and I, who's younger than I, he started with the trumpet and my dad was, what are you going to play? So I was, like, OK, I want to play the piano. And then when I got to the music school, the teacher was like, no, you ain't playing no piano here.

I have too many pianists here, so you got to just choose another instrument. And then I was, like, OK, like, I want this one. And this one was the alto saxophone. So that's how I started with the sax, the alto sax primarily.

MARTIN: It sounds like your dad was looking to put a band together.

Mr. OMICIL: That was always his dream. He wanted a symphony, actually.

MARTIN: Well, thats nice. Well, lets play some music. Were going to talk about well, tell us a little about Emilys Groove before we hear it.

Mr. OMICIL: Wow. You chose the right song to start it off with because Emilys Groove was written last. So it was written the day prior the recording session. And I recorded that song in New York at my brother-in-laws crib. And Emily is his daughter. So, she was just sitting on his lap and she was just playing. And then he just put on that tracks and I just heard that melody, pa pe-ne-ne.

(Soundbite of song, "Emily's Groove")

Mr. OMICIL: Pe, pe-ne-ne. I'm like, wow. I'm like that pe, pe-ne-ne, those two notes; I can do something with that. So that's how "Emily's Groove," you know, came about, really. It was just the night prior the session. You know, it's just an amazing song and it's a pleasure for me to play it for you today.

(Soundbite of song, "Emily's Groove")

MARTIN: Thank you for that.

Mr. OMICIL: Woo-hoo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. You know what I wanted to ask, though, is that one of the things that you are known for is your mastery of pretty much anything that you can blow, okay.

Mr. OMICIL: Mmm.

MARTIN: And how did that - what happened? Are you just greedy to know everything or how did that come about? You play everything.

Mr. OMICIL: Yeah. I like to experiment. I'm like that. I would like to say I'm in the lab. I'm in the lab. I'm always in the lab because I'm always trying to create something. So to tell you the truth, Michel, when I started with the alto, I was never satisfied with the sound. So I was seeking and I went into the soprano sax and I was still seeking, and then I went into flute - the flute. Then I'm like, you know what, I like the piccolo a lot today. So it was really, you know, just my eagerness to experiment. You know, I always want to learn. I'm learning every day basically.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I am visiting with Jowee Omicil and we're talking about his new album "Roots & Grooves" and whatever else is on his mind. Of course, you know, we mentioned that your roots are in Haiti. You were born in Montreal.

Mr. OMICIL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Youre living in Miami now. But the disaster earlier this year in Haiti...

Mr. OMICIL: Right.

MARTIN: ...has ripples, you know, far beyond Haiti and into the Diaspora. I'd like to ask how you responded to that event and has that event affected your music in some way?

Mr. OMICIL: Yes, it did. It did. I can answer the last part of the question right away; it did affect my music. It affect the way I see life. It affect the way I play. It affect my perception of sound. And, you know, I respond right away, myself and Sweet Micky, the artist and the man Michel Martelly, actually, we recorded a song with a Black Dada, actually. You know, you see that the marriage right there is like R&B and combine jazz all together.

(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On")

JOWEE OMICIL, SWEET MICKY AND BLACK DADA: (Singing) What's going on? (Foreign language spoken) Can you help me? (Foreign language spoken) Where I'm born I see my people dying. From far I hear the kids they're crying. They had no place to go.

Mr. OMICIL: With the song, they go, we produced that song; we call it "What's Going On," and it's all the proceeds goes to Haiti. It's on the iTunes. Every day, you know, I go through it and some Haitian tell me, you know, you, how you feel? You're here in Miami. You're good. I'm like, no I'm not good. I'm not good because my people are suffering and they're right across. They're right across the water, literally, and you're telling me I'm good? You think I'm good?

I cannot even go there right now. They are, they're fighting. They have cholera right now. I can't go there because I might get infected.


Mr. OMICIL: And I cannot help them. I can send money. I can do more - I can write more music. I can do that. But as far as being there with them, I would love to be on the ground and be safe just like, you know, we pretend to be here, you know. So it's a plight.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying. Its a sense of frustration that you can't do more.

Mr. OMICIL: Definitely.

MARTIN: There is a cut on this album, a track, on your new album...

Mr. OMICIL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...which I think is dedicated to the people of Haiti called "For My People."

Mr. OMICIL: Yes.


Mr. OMICIL: "For My People."

MARTIN: Well, do you want to play that one next?

Mr. OMICIL: Yeah.


Mr. OMICIL: I would love to play "For My People." It's dear to me and let's play it. Let's just dedicate it to the people.

(Soundbite of song, "For My People") (Instrumental)

MARTIN: Well, finally, Haiti is faced with a new challenge. Of course, it's not on the order of the earthquake but, you know, as we know, elections are coming soon and there was all this discussion around, you know, Wyclef Jean running for the presidency and ultimately he was disqualified because he was deemed not to meet the core requirement, which is residency.

Do you mind if I ask you, do you have any feelings about that - about his candidacy? Did you feel that he was, I don't know if you know him, did you feel he was genuine in his pursuit of the office and what do you think about that?

Mr. OMICIL: I know Wyclef, but I never had spoken to him about running for the president seat, so I'm didn't really know what was his M.O. really or his vision. But at the same token, you know, Sweet Micky, Michel Martelly is running and I know why he's running, and I've seen what he's done. So I would say that I think that at this point right now, I want to hope that every single person that's running for office right now, the presidency, should have the people at heart first or otherwise I'm not down with them.

MARTIN: I hear you. Well...

Mr. OMICIL: I will say just that.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, speaking of which, you actually have already met one president, President Obama.

Mr. OMICIL: Obama.


Mr. OMICIL: Actually, you know what? I met his house but I didnt meet him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: He wasnt there? You performed at the White House.

Mr. OMICIL: I performed there but, you know...

MARTIN: He wasnt - man, that's a shame.

Mr. OMICIL: That was a shame. But it's okay. You know, he welcomed us in his house and then, you know, it was the first time actually, Michel, that the Haitian had the Flag Day celebration in the White House - at the White House, so...

MARTIN: And you performed at that.

Mr. OMICIL: Yeah. And then they allowed only 150 guests, 50 guests and I was honored to be a part of those guest. And we played there. I mean, I want to go back this time to play with my band, actually. I just went solo that time. That would be the next one.

MARTIN: Well, we'd like to come too, so, you know...

Mr. OMICIL: Mmm.

MARTIN: ...we'll carry your equipment and...

Mr. OMICIL: Thank you. We'll be together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OMICIL: TELL ME MORE and Jowee Omicil going to the White House.

MARTIN: Exactly.

Mr. OMICIL: There you go.

MARTIN: What would you like to play as we take our leave?

Mr. OMICIL: Pe-pe, po. Pe-pe, pa, do. Pe-pe, po. Pe-pe, pa, do. Pe-pe, po. Pe-pe, pa, do. "Cubhatiando."

MARTIN: All right, "Cubhatiando." Okay. Jowee Omicil's latest album is called Roots & Grooves." He's obviously trying to get into his roots and his groove, so let's let them do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: He and his other band members were kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami. Jowee Omicil, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. OMICIL: Thank you to you, Michel. Bosh, that's what I say.

MARTIN: If you want to hear full songs performed by Jowee Omicil in studio, please go to the Programs menu of and select TELL ME MORE.

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