Lomax in Haiti

January 16, 2010

Many sincere thanks to Archivist Kevin for this pertinent post on Haiti. Our hearts go out to Haitians everywhere and to all the victims and their families… -C
I put it on my Amazon wish list, and the ethnomusicology Santa Claus put it in my stocking: ten (count ‘em 10) CDs of music culled from the 1,500 recordings made during Alan Lomax’s 1936-1937 Haitian Expedition.  From rural to urban, from Catholic to vodou, these songs capture a little slice of Haiti in a turbulent period, only two years after the end of a fifteen-year occupation by the United States Marines.  The box-set comes with a book that explicates every tune, transcribes the Haitian Creole lyrics, and provides an English translation.  Also included is a reproduction of Lomax’s field notebook and correspondence from that period.

Flipping through the book, I learned that in the 1930s, mainstream academic thought held that American and Caribbean blacks has lost all cultural connection with Africa.  Anthropologist Melville Herskovits began to advance the then-novel idea of a continued African connection in a variety of culture, including music.  Lomax had similar ideas, based on his knowledge of African-American and Bahamanian folk music.  Listening to Carnaval music such as “Annou Manyen Na Wè” would seem, to my untrained and modern ear anyway, to be solid aural evidence of a continued African influence – but then, it seems today we have accepted the theories of Lomax and Herskovits*.

Annou Manyen Na Wè (Touch and Find Out) — Premyè Bann Òtofonik

The book tells me that the word Òtofonik in the band’s name is “a creolized version of the word Orthophonic on the old Victrola 78 rpm records, because the megaphones that the lead singers used resembled the horns from old phonograph players.”  The abrupt ending of the recording could have a variety of causes, but I would guess that the acetate disc Lomax was using ran out of space.  Such was field recording at the dawn of “portable” (read: 300-lb) sound equipment.

*At the great Red Hook, NY venue Jalopy, there was just an excellent discussion of how the banjo, as we know it today, came to be.  Extensive reference was made to the Afro-Caribbean roots of the instrument.


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