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  • Belle Ayiti: Mizik Savant Ayisyen (Beautiful Haiti: Haitian Classical Music)
  • Lois Wilcken
Belle Ayiti: Mizik Savant Ayisyen (Beautiful Haiti: Haitian Classical Music), 2007. Performed and produced by Zanmi Ansanm pou Mizik Ayisyen. Liner notes by Mary Procopio. Mapou Recording. CD (1).

Today's Haitians are rightfully proud of their revolutionary history; their enslaved black ancestors defeated Napoleon's powerful army, creating the Americas' second free state, and the expressive culture of Haiti articulates this pride. Many, if not most, Haitians today practice Afro-Haitian Vodou, a danced religion propelled by drums and percussion and call-and-response singing. Oral history claims that revolutionaries laid their plans for the massive uprisings of 1791 at seminal Vodou rites. Driven by colorfully costumed musicians and dancers, the annual public festivals of Carnival and Rara likewise trace their roots to Africa. Independence, however, did not come without a cost. The new black republic suffered ostracism and the threat of re-invasion by its slaveholding neighbors. The leadership of Haiti struggled for inclusion in a hostile world and distanced itself socially, politically, and culturally from the masses—black people were still regarded as ignorant and barbaric in "civilized" circles. This was manifested in music by a preference for the classical repertoire of Europe and its norms of music education. The cultivation of exclusively European musical content in Haitian classical music persisted until the turn of the twentieth century, when a nationalist movement stirred intellectuals to explore the African side of their heritage. Belle Ayiti honors the spirit and legacy of this movement. Those unfamiliar with this music will be delighted by this remarkable CD.

The disc was produced by Zanmi Ansanm pou Mizik Ayisyen (ZAMA), which translates as Friends Together for Haitian Music. The group—Mary Procopio, flute; Rebecca Dirksen, piano; Ann Weaver, viola; and Tom Clowes, cello—had its genesis in 2004 when the four musicians from the United States met in Léogane, just west of the capital city Port-au-Prince, to teach instrumental music at a summer camp. Procopio, who holds a Doctorate in Musical Arts, had been inspired by the work of Michael Largey, author of Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism (University of Chicago Press, 2006), while studying with him at Michigan State University. Since the ensemble's founding, ZAMA has worked to research and perform Haiti's classical music, to educate the public about the repertory, and to encourage the creation of new work based on the Afro-Haitian musical tradition.

The recording features four Haitian composers born in the first half of the twentieth century, whose works draw on elements of traditional Afro-Haitian musical style. Werner Jaegerhuber (1900-53) pioneered Haiti's nationalism in music. Educated in Germany, where he probably felt the influence of the Volkskunde movement, Jaegerhuber made his mark as both composer and amateur ethnographer. His incorporation of Vodou chants and rhythms into classical music stirred controversy among Haitian elites and advanced the national debate over what it means to be Haitian. The work of Jaegerhuber lived on in that of his student Frantz Casseus (1915-93), a guitarist and composer who took up residence in New York in 1946 and produced the classic Haitian Suite in 1954 for Folkways Records. His plaintive "Assotô," presented here, takes its name from an imposing drum of African derivation that had virtually disappeared during a campaign to eradicate Vodou. Julio Racine, the one living composer presented on this recording, did not conduct original research but drew from that of others, as well as his personal experience of folk music. Born in 1945 and educated in the United States, Racine marries elements of jazz and Haitian folk music in his work. Martha Jean-Claude (1929-2001) was an international performer and longtime resident of Cuba who composed songs of social import that blended traditional Haitian idioms with those of neighboring Cuba. Her "Nostalgia," a sonic vignette that bubbles with the melodic and offbeat play of the islands, closes the disc.

Ten compositions (five by Jaegerhuber, three by Racine, and one each by Casseus and Jean-Claude) fill twenty-eight finely recorded tracks. [End Page 326]

The last four pieces (scored for flute, piano...


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