Born in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, the Haitian band speak to Tom Pryor about making music to help their country recover
For one weekend in January, musicians from all over the world descend on New York City for a massive annual party. Anchored by the conference for the Association for Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), the city buzzes with showcases and mini-festivals, including Winter JazzFest, the Under the Radar festival, Prototype and more. For world music fans, the jewel in the crown is globalFEST — an annual, three-stage, one-night showcase featuring a dozen international artists — and the standout act at this year’s event was Haitian roots collective Lakou Mizik.
This multi-generational nine-piece ensemble made their NYC debut earlier that weekend at the venue Drom. At first glance they looked less than promising; all dreadlocks and matching dashikis, bongos and conch shells, like a cruise ship band gone to seed. But then the music kicked in and they damn near levitated the place. Lakou’s unique blend of Haitian roots traditions – insistent voodoo rhythms, rollicking raicine melodies, twobadou lyricism and blaring rara horns – was irresistible and for the next 40 minutes, the dance floor was filled with New Yorkers defrosting in their subtropical warmth. One night later Lakou did it all again, with a knockout globalFEST performance that ought to put them on the map permanently.
It’s been a long time coming. Lakou Mizik was born in 2010, in the wake of the earthquake that devastated much of Haiti in January of that year. Guitarist-singer Steeve Valcourt and singer Jonas Attis formed the nucleus of the band, with the input and support of American producer Zach Niles (who had previously worked with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars). They wanted to make music that could help empower the Haitian people and speed the nation’s recovery, and recruited their own supergroup to do so.
Valcourt’s secret weapon was his father, Boulo Valcourt: a Haitian musical legend, best known for his group Caribbean Sextet. Thanks to years spent producing his father’s collaborations with musicians from all over the island, Steeve knew just where to find both young talent and seasoned veterans. Of the former, singer Jonas Attias brings a poet’s perspective to Lakou’s lyrics, while Nadine Remy’s big, church-trained voice sanctifies the music. Peterson ‘Ti Piti’ Joseph and James Carrier are the young men behind Lakou’s signature rara horns — the enormous metal coronets that are a staple of Haiti’s carnival celebrations. Sanba Zao – aka Louis Lesly Marcelin – is a master voodoo drummer and singer with 30 years of experience and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Haitian folk songs, while his son Woulele is a fierce percussionist in his own right. Bassist Lamarre Junior and accordionist Belony Beniste (longtime accompanist for singer Ti Coco) round out the group.
Lakou Mizik’s debut album, Wa Di Yo (on Cumbancha) captures the raucous spirit of their live show with swinging, guitar and accordion-driven tracks like ‘Anba Siklon’ and ‘Poze’, but adds more depth and texture with some slower, mid-tempo songs. ‘Pran Kwa Mwen’ and carnival favourite ‘Panama’am Tonbe’ showcase Remy’s gorgeous, clear voice, and let the musicians stretch out and breathe. The title-track, which translates as ‘We are Still Here’, is a clear-eyed statement of purpose, while ‘Bade Zile’ and ‘Parenn Legba’ draw from the voodoo repertoire and call down the loas (voodoo spirits) and the ancestors to bless the proceedings.
Album Lakou Mizik’s Wa Di Yo will be reviewed in the next issue (May, #117)