The remote community of Petite Rivière des Bayonnais in Gonaïves district, three hours north of Port-au-Prince, not too far from Haiti’s so-called ‘voodoo triangle,’ has no electricity or running water. Drummaker Charles Simé has lived here all his life, fashioning percussive instruments such as the manman tanbou, equipping musicians to play the fierce mizik rasin (roots music) that accompanies dancers who very often fall, as do the players, into trance.
It was here, in a community where girls bring water from the river in buckets balanced on their heads and women sing as they do dishes, that the six-piece group Chouk Bwa Libète recorded their debut album, Se Nou Ki La!. Arguably the first international release of what Songlines deemed ‘hardcore Haitian roots music’ (reviewed in #110), it’s a mesmeric mix of work songs, call-and-response singing and traditional polyrhythmic percussion; of raw power and stripped down beauty. Oh, and a pinch of reggae.
“We only use drums, maracas and a little metal rod called a fer that I tap on,” says frontman and composer Jean-Claude ‘Sanbaton’ Dorvil of the bell-like instrument used to announce each of more than 100 rhythms that call up spirits known as loa.
Having enthralled delegates at last year’s WOMEX and a series of dates everywhere from Borneo to Warsaw, they will grace WOMAD at the end of this month. Colourfully dressed, with two dancers, Edele and Maloune, lending added vibrancy, they promise both rootsy authenticity and – with songs expressing the painful history and the indomitable spirit of modern-day Haitians – contemporary savvy.
Their name, says Dorvil, translates from Creole as ‘Bowl of the Tree of Freedom,’ and was inspired by the words of Toussaint Louverture, aka the Black Napoleon, the best-known leader of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), who said “in overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of the black liberty… it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”
Live, Dorvil summons the drummers and dancers onstage by playing a conch shell called a lanbi, which symbolises the call to freedom for Haiti’s once enslaved populations. “We are ambassadors of voodoo,” he says of the oft misunderstood, Yoruba-derived religion, which is comparable with lucumí or santería in Cuba and candomblé in Brazil. “We carry the sacred heritage passed down by our ancestors. The songs came from inside me, these extraordinary words that carry messages.”
Blown away after chancing upon Chouk Bwa Libète on a visit to Haiti in 2013, Belgian producer and musician Michael Wolteche had suggested recording an album in situ. In Simé’s village, songs were laid down at salient times of the day; in the evening in an aloupa (hut) lit by 1,000 candles that burned and were snuffed out according to the spirit winds. It all came as close to ceremony as possible.
“It’s sad that people who don’t understand voodoo criticise it,” says Dorvil. “Voodoo is a pure religion. It’s about unity. There’s a spirit of sharing and a dignity you don’t often find anywhere else.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #120.