Music of Haiti

Music Of Haiti

The music of Haiti is influenced most greatly by European colonial ties and African migration (through slavery). In the case of European colonization, musical influence has derived primarily from the French, however Haitian music has been influenced to a significant extent by its Spanish-speaking neighbors, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, whose Spanish-infused music has contributed much to the country's musical genres as well. Styles of music unique to the nation of Haiti include music derived from Vodou vodou ceremonical traditions and the wildly popular compass. Haiti didn't have any recorded music until 1937 when Jazz Guignard was recorded non-commercially.

Vodou music
The religion of the majority of Haitians is Roman Catholicism, but some people still practice Vodou and highly formalized percussion is used in spiritual music. Vodou uses music, dance, and spirit possession as a part of religious rituals. The spirit possessions are a mixture of African spirits of popular religious figures and a mixture of popular religious figures of Roman Catholic Saints. The Virgin Mary was associated with the love and beauty of Ezili Freda and Saint Patrick was associated with the driving of snakes of Dambala. These spirits are called lwa. Ounsi initiates the vodou community dances to the music of drums, gongs, and rattles. The goal is to have the lwa travel to Haiti and possess a Haitian worshiper. This is also called “mounting of their horse”. Unusual movements or jerks from normal dancing indicates that the possession has taken place or the “horse mounted”. Once the possession has taken place, the worshiper takes on the personality traits of the lwa. For example, if the lwa is Ezili Freda, then the lwa will demand gifts of perfume, fine clothes, or jewelry from the rest of the worshipers. The lwa have their own music in the forms of ritual songs and these are sung at ceremonies to invite lwa participation. Songs are in combination of Kreyòl and the Langai languages that are derived from West and Central African religions.

Vodou includes two different kinds of lwa: rada and petwo. Ceremonies may include either rada drums (Tanbou Rada in Haitian Kreyol) with cowhide covers attached with wooden pegs, or petwo drums (Tanbou Petwo), which have a goatskin cover attached with cords and a more aggressive sound. The rhythms and sounds of vodou performances have many regional variations. For example, some of the most popular rada rhythms from Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas include yanvalou, mayi, zepol, and dawomen, while in Gonaives, rada takes such names as wanjale, akbadja, and kavalye hounto. In the petwo family one can find: petwo makaya, fran petwo, petwo doki, makandal, bumba, and kita.

There are many other vodou rhythms, including djoumba, kongo, ibo, tchika, raboday, banda, nago, maskawon.

When the United States invaded Haiti in 1915, the rituals of vodou were used to reject the cultures of the occupying soldiers. Groups like Jazz des Jeunes brought the sounds of the vodou drum battery to popular music performances in Haiti.


Rara music is a Lenten processional music with strong ties to the Vodou religious tradition. It has been commonly confused with Haitian Carnival since both celebrations involve large groups of dancing revelers in the streets. Rara is performed between Ash Wednesday (the day after Carnival ends) until Easter Sunday (or Easter Monday in some parts of Haiti.) Rara bands roam the streets of Haiti during Lent performing religious ceremonies as part of their ritual obligations to the "lwa" or spirits of Haitian Vodou. Gede, a spirit associated with death and sexuality, is an important spiritual presence in Rara celebrations and often possesses an ougan (male Vodou priest) or manbo (female Vodou priest) before the band begins its procession in order to bless the participants and wish them safe travels for their nightly sojourns. Mizik Rasin
Starting in the late 1970s (with discontent surrounding the increasing oppulence of the Duvalier dictatorship), youth from Port-au-Prince (and to a lesser extent Cape Haitien and other urban areas) began experimenting with new types of life. Francois Duvalier's appropriation of Vodou images as a terror technique, the increase in US assembly and large-scale export agriculture, the popularity of disco, and Jean-Claude Duvalier's appreciation of konpa and chanson francaise led to a disillusioning of such youth. To question the dictatorship's notion of "the Haitian nation" (and thus the dictatorship itself), several men began trying a new way of living, embodied in the Sanba Movement. They drew upon global trends in black power, Bob Marley, "Hippie"-dom, as well as prominently from rural life in Haiti. They dressed in the traditional blue denim (karoko) of peasants, eschewed the commercialized and processed life offered by global capitalism, and celebrated the values in communal living. Later, they adopted matted hair which resembled dread locks, but identified the style as something which existed in Haitii with the term cheve simbi, referring to water spirits.

The most well-known of these were Sanba Zao (Louis Leslie Marcellin), Ayizan (Harry Sanon), Azouke (Gregory Sanon), Aboudja (Ronald Derencourt), and Kebyesou Danle (Jean Raymond). They formed a band called Sanba yo and later, Gwoup Sa. Later still, other musicians like Lolo (Theodore Beaubrun), Papa Bonga, and Eddy Francois joined the trend. This was the modern precursor to what would become mizik rasin. One of these groups recorded a song in the 1980s for a UNICEF campaign for vaccination which is included on the LP Konbit!.

In the 1990s, commercial success came to the musical genre that came to be known as Mizik Rasin,or "roots music". Musicians like Boukman Eksperyans, and Boukan Ginen, and to a lesser extent RAM, incorporated Reggae, Rock and Funk rhythms into traditional forms and instrumentation, including music of rara, music from kanaval, or traditional spiritual music from the rural hamlets called lakous, like Lakou Souvnans, Lakou Badjo, Lakou Soukri, or Lakou Dereyal. Though initially the people involved followed the ways of the Sanba Movement, eventually this began to fade away. Increased political and economic pressures saw many of these people move outside of Haiti (to the US and Canada, primarily). Both those who stayed and those who traveled between countries began adding more non-Haitian (strictly speaking) elements and implemented a more commercial sound to earn more money and a wider audience.

Although the message of much of the sanba-oriented bands espouse values of equality, several members have been linked to male chauvanist ideas and even domestic violence. (C.f. the book Walking on Fire, Beverly Bell)

(in French) or Kompa (in Creole) is a complex, ever-changing music that arose from European Ballroom dancing, mixed with Haiti's bourgeois culture. It is a refined music, played with an underpinning of tipico, and meringue (related to Dominican Merengue) as a basic rhythm. Much of early Haitian music consisted of Western dances with africanized versions of the accompanying music. Some of these forms still exist, including menwat, a variation of the minuet. In the early 20th century, Compas was further influenced by multiple genres, including the Cuban son, calypso, salsa, soca and soukous. Beginning in 1915, the American military occupation of Haiti brought swing and big band music, and Haitian musicians incorporated the swinging style into Compas. Among the artists to rise to prominence was the group Les Jazz de Jeunes.

Compas direct was invented in the mid-1950s by a group of artists, already then famous, called Coronto International: it soon became popular throughout the Antilles, especially in Martinique and Guadeloupe, it evolved into zouk. Webert Sicot and Nemours Jean Baptiste became the two major powers in the group. Sicot left and formed a new group and an intense rivalry developed between the two, though they remained good friends. Nemours played a popular, improvised, mambo-influenced style called konpa direk (Creole, while Sicot's sophisticated, significantly Cuban- influenced cadence rampa was inaccessible to mainstream listeners.

It was used as a tool of the Duvalier dictatorship (both to trumpet praise as well as to divert attention from socio-political oppression) as well as later being a tool to question authoritarianism. Most Compas in the late 20th and early 21st century deals with themes of heterosexual love relations and at times includes lewd and suggestive, potentially male chauvinist attitudes.

Mini Jazz
The mid-1980s saw the blockbuster success of zouk (itself a Compas-derived genre), which soon traded influences with all the greatest of Caribbean genres, including merengue, calypso, salsa, and compas. The zouk wave was followed by an influx of Haitian artists like System Band, Zin, Top Vice and Karess who incorporated Rock and Roll, hip hop and jazz into compas, and experimented with new lyrical content, such as Feminism.

Haitian Rap
The local homegrown Haitian hip hop movement is rising in popularity in Haiti and other communities where there is a strong Haitian presence. It is becoming more and more popular with Haitian youth, often communicating social and political topics as well as materialistic concepts. Compas as well as other popular local music beats are used frequently with urban sounds. Popular Haitian hip hop artists are Black Alex from King posse, Original Rap Staff, Top Adlerman. The recent years have seen a rise in popularity for Haitian Hip-Hop with artists such as RockFam Lame-a, Barikad Crew, Seca Konsa, Bennchoumy, Mystik 103, Magik Click, Mecca AKA Grimo. Other Haitian hip hop artists have yet to evolved. Among them Solo, known for his story telling ability and a style which resembles the late American hip hop icon Tupac Shakur and plenty others.

Haitians in general are on the Hip Hop on the global level as well. (Torch rapper), aka (“DJ Haitian Star”) has been rapping since the mid-1980s has been one of the most influential contributors to German hip hop. He is "a hip hop activist, appointed by rap- godfather Afrika Bambaataa to head the first German chapter of Zulu Nation... Advanced Chemistry [his band] burst onto the hip hop scene with a maxi-single released in November 1992. The song, “Fremd in eigenem Land” (foreigner in your own country), made a pointed statement about the position of immigrants in German societ.


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