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New Alan Lomax box set captures old Haiti with fresh ears 

Wednesday, Jan 13 2010

Easily one of the most important figures in 20th-century music, the folklorist Alan Lomax was also among the earliest proponents of multiculturalism, or, as he called it, cultural equity. His "one world" ideology referred not only to ethnicity, but also to both high and low art forms — the outsider musicians and the under-the-radar cultures around the globe he spent a lifetime recording.

Among Lomax' thousands of field recordings, the most exotic and most adventurous include his archives of Caribbean music — listen to his work with the Georgia Sea Island singers. But his extensive collection of Haitian music has only now been released. For years, the recordings sat ignored in the Library of Congress. David Katznelson, owner of S.F. label Birdman Records and former A&R vice president for Warner Bros., unearthed them to produce a box set worthy of Lomax' relics.

Alan Lomax in Haiti reveals what Haitian culture sounded like in 1936 and '37, only a few years after the end of American occupation. At a time when the island was dismissed by Westerners for its primitivism, Lomax documented everything: Voudou ceremonies, fringe culture, children's songs, Mardi Gras, funerals, work, rara rituals, and carnivals, all through the lens of music. These recordings, on 10 CDs, are packaged with black-and-white photos, Lomax' Haiti diary, essays, and a reproduction of his map of the island. In the extensive liner notes, the ethnomusicologist Gage Averill calls the box set "the most extensive audiovisual archive of Haitian expressive culture in the early 20th century."

In the 1930s, recorded music was largely a documentation of wealth and opportunity — and Haiti was a rural place of peasants and farmland, not studio technology. To capture sounds around the world, Lomax dragged around a 500-pound machine, capturing Italians singing olive-picking songs, shepherds whistling on Mallorca, field hollers in prison work gangs in the American South, and spiritual Baptist anthems on the tiny island of Carriacou.

Most influential were Lomax' records of Southern blues musicians, including early songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and the first recording of Muddy Waters, all of which helped to bring these musicians to fame. It's unquantifiable how important these recordings have been to American culture, considering that without Waters, there was no Chicago blues, and without Guthrie, no Dylan.

Similarly, Alan Lomax in Haiti provides a sense of heritage. Like the infectious compas pop that defines contemporary Haitian music, the sound of Lomax' time was a blend of African pulses, Latin percussion, and European guitar songs. The more than 200 recordings in this collection go beyond mere music. They include live experiences of pained a cappella rara chants, women screaming over distant droning pipes, old troubadours singing lighthearted ditties, and the execrations of worshipers enduring animalistic visions. The gem of this compilation, however, is the disc of 30 songs by (and for) children. They sing gorgeous, Bachlike cadences in schoolyard backbeat rhythms; the lyrics contain unusual hints of local myth, such as "I went to the cemetery/All the zombies ran after me."

Like most early field recordings, these portraits of wild men in the street and congregations singing in unison carry the haunted, analog grit of the past, of voices and songs that died long ago. And yet they now live in zombie audio clips that contain the ability to inspire and vivify. It's miraculous that one man would have enough foresight to preserve not only the culture of his own people, but also to provide a snapshot of how humanity sounded outside the recording studio.

About The Author

Ross Simonini


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