HAITI: HaitiaNola - Lakou Mizik
Updated: Apr 8
Combining their fearsome talents with New Orleans-based musicians, Lakou Mizik aim to highlight cultural links to the US, while also challenging assumptions about Haiti and its culture
The nation of Haiti has a fascinating history that is compelling by turns triumphant and tragic. A nation birthed in the unimaginable violence of the Atlantic slave trade, before being forged in the fire of the only successful slave rebellion in human history to lead to a state in which slavery was abolished, the downfall of the institution of slavery began in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, which post-independence reverted to the indigenous Taíno name of Ayiti – Haiti in English – meaning land of high mountains. Haiti fought off invasion attempts by the British, French and Spanish, and after 13 years of struggle, and the death of the leader of the revolution Toussaint Louverture at the hands of the French, an independent Haiti was declared. It is a pivotal moment in world history that is not known about enough in my country at least, but that’s part of a larger issue of ignorance of colonial history, and for anyone interested in learning about this engrossing period of history, I would recommend reading The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James for a concise and in-depth analysis of the events of the revolution and its consequences. What is widely known, however, is the story of Haiti since then, which has largely been one of political instability, brutal repression by insane dictators, and neo-colonialist meddling by the United States, among others. The music of Lakou Mizik in HaitiaNola is, in some ways, reflective of all of this history. The band themselves were formed in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, a disaster from which the nation itself is still trying to recover, in an attempt to show the world that Haiti is far more than the disaster zone it has been portrayed in the world press. What is interesting about this album in particular is the fact that it is a collaboration with many artists from New Orleans, a place that is intrinsically linked to Haiti.
“Lakou Mizik wanted to show the world that their small island country has more to offer than just heart-breaking headlines of disaster, corruption, and death, they wanted to defy the patronising Western assumptions about their country and they have most certainly done so.”
Both share a creole culture and former French colonial heritage, but more than that, many inhabitants of Haiti fled the revolution in the late 1700s for New Orleans, leaving a strong Haitian mark on the food, religion (both Haiti and New Orleans have a Vodun community, their version of a traditional West African religious practice highlighted in the wonderful album Otodi by Vaudou Game). Lakou Mizik themselves are an inter-generational group of Haitians, consisting of eight members, aiming to create new music with a Haitian identity that also seeks to revere the past masters of Haitian music by reinvigorating old songs. The project itself is the brainchild of Eric Heigle, a Grammy-winning producer and musician who aimed to bring together Haitian musicians with New Orleans bands, and HaitiaNola is the result, a wildly enjoyable celebration of culture and music, that remains true to the history and culture that birthed it.
The music itself is rich and varied, featuring celebrated New Orleans musicians such as Trombone Shorty, The Preservation Hall Band, and Leyla McCalla; the genre mix here is so seamless I did not even notice it until I began to research this review. Perhaps it is my ignorance of the music of both places, perhaps it’s the excellent musicianship and production on display, or maybe it’s a bit of both, the fusion is so perfect it sounds like its own thing completely. There are distinctly Caribbean sounds on songs like Renmen, which harks back to the calypso era, and also on Iko Kreyòl, which contains elements of a Caribbean dancehall track, yet the song itself is based off a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras chant called Iko Iko, itself believed to be a song descended from the Haitian refugees to the city. In this regard, it is perhaps the most emblematic song on the album, as it neatly sums up in its music all the varying influences of the album.
Most of the album has a carnivalesque atmosphere, which is unsurprising considering the New Orleans musicians playing with them as well as the Caribbean influences, and as such the album sounds like a recorded live show, with many songs having an exuberant, upbeat tone. There are softer songs, like La Fanmi, which has a French accordion melody overlain on top of a bluesy piano section and soul vocals, as well as an African-style backing vocal section, which rather poignantly sings of the importance of family and remembering one’s ancestors. This lyrical content is reflected in the music, which itself is highlighting the importance of remembering musical traditions that get passed down over the years.
Another one of the softer songs, Rasanbleman, is based off a traditional Haitian work song, a song with obvious African roots in its composition, and one can hear the roots of a genre like gospel or soul in this style of singing, again showing the influence that African music has had not only on Haiti but on American music in general. The song itself then becomes an almost devotional song, singing about the hope for a renewal of Haiti and the rebuilding of the whole country, harking back to the foundational principles of the Haitian Revolution. It is this mixture of hope and sadness along with the joy and celebration that marks this album out from the crowd. It is authentic in what it wants to be and beautiful in its celebration of Haitian culture and music, while also recognising the long way Haiti still has to go.
Sung in Haitian Creole as well as English, you can hear the glory and the tragedy of a country like Haiti in the very notes of the music. The African influence is pronounced, as one would expect from a nation formed out of the broken shackles of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but listen closely and there are French, American, English and other South American twangs to the music. Lakou Mizik wanted to show the world that their small island country has more to offer than just heart-breaking headlines of disaster, corruption, and death, they wanted to defy the patronising Western assumptions about their country and they have most certainly done so. It sounds modern and traditional all at the same time, contemporary and with one foot in the past, honouring the traditions they have come from while remaining resolute in their ambition for creating a new mode of Haitian music that does not conform to stereotypes about their country. Please do listen to this album, and if you do, I assure you that you will be motivated to find out more about this band, their music, and their country.