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Various Artists
Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twobadou Sounds, 1960-1978
Strut (

When the West African nations of Guinea and Mali gained independence from France at the end of the 1950s, their respective Presidents, Sékou Touré and Modibo Keďta insisted that their countries, now free of colonial rule, have an orchestre in every region. Touré came up with the term “authenticitie” and encouraged local bands to eschew foreign influence and instead, dig into the country's own roots for popular styles. Needless to say that by the end of the 1960s, both countries were cranking out recordings of some of the hottest electric ensemble playing to found on the planet. Yet, at roughly the same time, Haiti, long independent from France, squirmed under the thumb of US-backed dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his murderous henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes. Yet, when not busy extorting, torturing, intimidating and disappearing his fellow countrymen and women, he had an idea similar to Touré's, and set about using state radio, as well as a then emerging musical style- compas direct- to give Haiti its own authentic pop music. Out of this period came some of Haiti's best-known bands, Les Ambassadeurs, Tabou Combo and Group les Chleu-Chleu among them. Extended riffing featuring accordion, the single or twin-guitar twoubadou (troubadour) folklore, amped-up meringue and excursions into raw Cuban mambo spilled out of LPs recorded in Haiti on tiny labels and then often mastered and released in NYC and other parts of the Caribbean, where there were loads of Haitian expats to buy them. These styles and bands percolate for over 2 discs and as many hours for what might be the Strut label's finest hour, and this collection proves the music was as hot as Duvalier's reign was repulsive.

The first disc focuses on the early 1970s, and is dominated by slowed-down meringue rhythms (a style both Haiti and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic claim as their own) and mambo grooves influenced by the peripatetic, Haiti-to-Cuba-and-back lives many Haitians lived in the first half of the 20th century. Spanish minor keys run throughout many of these songs, but then so do blasts of horns and scorching guitar licks as hot as anything from their West African contemporaries. There are pauses in the intensity here and there, as acoustic-based rural twoubadou legend Ti Paris makes a brief appearance. Paris rides single chord drones and nearly trance-inducing repetition as radical, if not as driving as north Mississippi's Fred McDowell on “Cochon St. Antoine,” from his sole LP, 1970's “et sa Guitare” (which just received a limited run, vinyl-only release by Portland, Oregon's Little Axe records).

Ti Paris "Cochon St. Antoine"

Also on the first disc is an example of ra ra, a rural style dominated by the Vaksin, a single-note bamboo flute with a sound not unlike its Sudanese and Ugandan counterparts. Needless to say, the call and response chants, percussion and, or course the horn, bring this track closer to Africa than anything else in the collection.

Ra Ra de Leogane "Gade Moune Yo"

Yet it's Haiti's own compas direct style, a big band update on the twoubadou style popularized by Trio Select and others that is the focus here. There are unconscious connections to everything from Garifuna rhythms up the Caribbean coast of Central America to beguine and tumbele that dominated the French-controlled islands Guadeloupe and Martinique. Yet compas direct had sustained drive unique to Haiti- an ability to lock into a vamp and hold it until it built on itself with the same fervor employed in hardcore black gospel from the US.

By disc two, we've moved back to the early sixties (with one track from the early 50s), before the mini-jazz shift. Here the Cuban influence is much more overt and the orchestres much more horn dominated. Clave rhythms can be heard on tracks by Super Jazz des Jeunes and Pierre Blain et Orchestre Murat Pierre. What typically sets Cuban-inspired African and Haitian music apart from Cuba itself is the absence of piano. Yet, one appears on Orchestre Septentrional's infectious rhumba, “Bapteme Ratt.” Even the organ and guitar dominated track “Calma Pelerin,” recorded in '71 by the Ensemble Meridonal des Cayes, wraps itself in Cuban rhythms.

Yet, then there's also raw electric twoubadou from the Etoile du Soir and Trio Select that can't be described as anything but Haitian. Here, clotted guitars intertwine and weave over and under call and response with a stealth that's foreboding and slightly menacing.

Trio Select "Ensemble Secect en Action"

However, the mere fact that the second disc is so overtly Cuban in origin detracts from the fact that Haiti did have a distinct if clearly-derivative popular musical style. Not only that, disc two becomes a bit uneven in its second half, with slickly produced Haitian New Yorkers playing something getting a bit too close to jazz fusion on at least one track. Despite this flaw, Haiti Direct, with extensive liner notes by Hugo Mendez detailing the music's rise, complete with narrative from the musicians themselves and track by track information, is without any question, one of the fieriest collections of large and small band dance music ever collected from the Western hemisphere, and it's as baffling as it is jaw-dropping that it's just now seeing the light of day. - Bruce Miller

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