Reasons to Celebrate
It isn't often that my mail is intercepted and investigated by the U.S. Customs but recently I received a Fed Ex bag that had obviously been scrutinised. What really made the parcel special though was its contents, a new cd from RAM, one of Haiti's most exciting bands, sent from the legendary Oloffson Hotel in Port au Prince. The Oloffson, setting for Graham Greene's novel 'The Comedians', was once a place where the rich and famous danced beneath the stars in the pre-Duvalier nights. Now its home, or at least a regular venue, for this superb band whose leader Richard Morse apparently bought the lease to the place from a voodoo priest in the back of a cab.
I first heard RAM on the 'Rough Guide To The Music Of Haiti' in 2002. Theirs was one of my favourite tracks and it still is. 'Marassa Elu' borrowed its opening chords from The Clash's 'White Man In Hammersmith Palais' then mutated into a powerful voodoo chant welcoming the Marassa spirits. This is something of a RAM trademark, a deliberate collision and fusion of several different styles and energies. And however unlikely a marriage between the sounds of London's Westway and the ritualistic rhythms of voodoo may appear, it works.
The tracks on their latest offering are a compilation of songs they've performed for Madi Gra celebrations over 10 years along with others never recorded. Richard Morse says they have been bootlegged often enough so this set is also one to outwit the bootleggers and, I'd guess, to celebrate their existence as a part of an unceasingly vibrant musical culture.
There is no cover art or band information as such with my copy but that doesn't matter. There can be up to a dozen performers on stage and it is the sound that counts. They kick off with a preview of their contribution to this year's festivities, 'Baron O', a drum driven track that mixes mellow guitar, bass and keyboards with the familiar chanting, led by distinctive vocalist , Lunise. It also features the unique rara horns, a staple of the island's traditional music. These single note trumpets crop up elsewhere too and have a strange muted quality that contrasts with the bright electric sounds they are fused with. Another unusual but effective mixture.
Most of the music here is driven by the percussion/bass, 'Love Everybody' features frantic rhythms, those horns and whistles and is infiltrated by some reggae influences. Both 'Zab a Te' and 'Zanj' begin by slowing down the pace a little but those drummers, along with guitar and horns lift the proceedings a couple of notches once again. The closing track, 'Ambago' brings all voices and rhythms to a frenzied climax which ends suddenly just when you think it could last as long as a voodoo ceremony.
Remember, these songs weren't made for introspection, and it is easy to see the crowds thronging their way through the gardens of the Oloffson to the infectious combinations of the traditional and contemporary sounds set up by this big band. But obviously, Morse's songs, as well as the Haitian chants, have their political message too. At times a risky business. In 1993 'Fey' resulted in death threats to Morse and his family because of its status as an anthem supporting Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then President-in-Exile. The power would be turned off at RAM gigs but the band continued to play. And they will no doubt continue to, no matter who is in control of Haiti. So maybe there isn't such a large divide between this band and the punk ethos of The Clash. It is an exuberant set of songs which has no doubt inspired souls in Port au Prince and elsewhere. So if, like me, you don't see yourself getting down to the Oloffson some time soon then this cd is essential.
If RAM's cd celebrates Haiti's annual festivities then Dorothy Masuka's latest collection celebrates a life, a career, triumph over exile and an enduring voice. Subtitled, 'The Grand Dame Of African Music', it covers aspects of her work from the 1950s to the present, showcasing the influences of American swing, kwela and her own, sometimes political, material. Hearing her talk of her 'activism' she displays a certain na¥ve charm. 'To me it was just a song. I didn't see colour, I saw human beings'. She was singing 'her thoughts out', she says. Nevertheless, this singing brought her the attentions of South Africa's Special Branch and years of banishment which only ended with Mandela's release. Those years, if her recent performances are anything to go by, haven't diminished her voice or spirit one bit. The sheer life-affirming quality of her latest tracks speaks for itself and she is enthusiastic about another new album which is in the can.
If some of the earliest recordings for the Troubadour label have a raw quality it doesn't detract from the power of her voice. These songs were recorded and released quickly but on tracks like 'Themba' and 'Naledi' her vitality and the simplicity of the arrangements easily compensate for any small audio deficiencies. Similarly, 'Ngi Hamba Ngedwe' swings effortlessly as she scats a few bars over the brisk rhythm and slightly reticent sax. Songs like these from the 1950s built a foundation for her career and it is good to hear one of them, 'Hamba Notsokolo', from her 1990 cd 'Pata Pata', polished up. It has been a staple of her repertoire for years and it's easy to see why as she swoops between high and low notes with grace and certainty.
There are also several tracks from her latest album 'Mzilikazi' which further updates the sound of her brand of Fifties South African jazz. 'Usemncane' and 'Andizenzinsi' both incorporate some kwela penny whistle while 'Teya Teya' is spacious and relaxed, blending vocal harmonies and percussion with unobtrusive guitar. I guess my personal favourite has to be 'Magumede', a song she wrote on her return from exile to South Africa. Here muted trumpet and sparse percussion underscore the easy swing of the piece. I've heard it before in other arrangements and it never fails to lift the spirits.
If anyone is looking for reasons to celebrate this new musical year I'd suggest both this and RAM as good places to start.
© 2003 Paul Donnelly