The deeply influential music of Haiti and its diaspora communities is in danger of being lost in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake. Vik Sohonie of Ostinato Records is trying to preserve it.
Text by Joe Clark
Photography provided by Vik Sohonie
Approx reading time: 5 mins
For several years, Vik Sohonie has been compiling important cultural artefacts in the form of seemingly lost Haitian vinyls, in an effort to make sure that the cultural significance of these items is not lost. This journey took him all across New York and to Haiti itself, in order to ensure the rest of the world can truly understand what Haitian music has given to the world.
Vik started his own record label, Ostinato Records, which focuses largely on Afrophone sounds from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, to ensure that his vision was realised. The label’s latest compilation, Tanbou Toujou Lou, is a selection of what Vic believes to be the essential summation of Haitian music through the 60s, 70s and 80s.
The inspiration for this project came largely from an introduction to hip-hop culture during the 90s, all of which has Afro-centric roots.
“When I lived in the United States, I was exposed to so many different immigrant cultures, which are so vast and diverse that I started to fall in love with their music," Vic says. "And whilst working at Reuters News photo desk we would get these incredible images from all over Africa, Haiti, and Latin America, and that opened my eyes to cultures I might have experienced through their immigrant communities, but hadn’t seen first hand. I knew I wanted to experience them.”
Having grown up in the developing world, Southeast Asia and India specifically, as well as the United States, Vic wanted to reveal the African narrative of Atlantic history, as opposed to the European version that we are all so accustomed to. During this time, Haiti was one of the largest recipients of slaves from Africa - the most diverse continent on earth - and many other parts of the world. It soon became a melting pot of Afro-cultures.
“I wanted to release music really to tell the story of the Atlantic from a very different perspective," says Vic. "I would like to tell the story of Haiti that tells a different narrative from what we have grown up learning.”
“Haitian music specifically appealed to me because of its blending of various African cultures and African musical styles which created a very rich sound during the 60s that drew so much from Jazz influences. When I listen to Webert Sicot, the saxophonist, he is comparable to if not better than, a lot of the American greats. But we know about them and we don’t know about him. That’s what really got me.”
In the search for material for the compilation album, Vic travelled to Haiti in an attempt to find music that was not readily available in New York, or other parts of the westernised world. After initially being laughed at by most of the places he visited on his quest for vinyl, he came to realise that it was not for his longing to find “old” music that he was laughed at, but because vinyl has become increasingly rare in Haiti after to the 2010 earthquake. As with all aspects of Haitian culture and society, the earthquake had a profound effect on Haitian music. It devastated and levelled so much of the country, including many of the archives which had held old recordings and master tapes of these precious songs and albums.
One radio DJ told Vic of how even his personal collection was destroyed, and how in order to continue broadcasting, he had to do so atop a rooftop, using a rudimentary setup of transistors. Vic cites this as a testament to the lengths some individuals were willing to go to preserve their musical heritage.
“I’d recommend that everyone visit Haiti at some point and not to believe the common perception of the country, which worldwide is one of extreme poverty and violence. Whilst it does have hardships, it shouldn’t be associated with these preconceptions. It’s a lovely yet tough place to visit, and what stood out to me most was the resilience of its people and the lengths they went to in order to preserve their culture and values through their art.”
Haitian music has survived much, as even at it’s time of recording in the 70s and 80s the country was under the rule of president Jean-Claude Duvalier. Nicknamed "Baby Doc", Duvalier was brutal dictator who persecuted intellectuals and journalists. However, despite this media control, he himself subscribed to noirisme - an ill-defined ideology in post-occupation Haiti that advocated the total control of the state by black representatives of the popular classes. Baby Doc therefore believed it to be important that African heritage be appreciated and remembered, which led him to promote this culture, allowing the music scene to thrive throughout his troubled time in office. Provided, of course, the songs were not critical of his regime.
The persecution, however, caused thousands to flee from Haiti to places such as Miami and New York.
"Almost all of the music I compiled for this collection was found in these places," says Vic. "Some of it was recorded in Haiti, but the vast majority was produced and manufactured in the States or Canada. Much of these records were produced for the Haitian diaspora community in the States, which shows the far-reaching effect Haitian music has had, and the importance of its preservation."
Vic explains that, as a result of the earthquake, and Haitian music predominantly being found on radio, vinyl culture in Haiti - while still protected by certain people - is not making a resurgence any time soon. Hence his desire to give it new life in Tanbou Toujou Lou and beyond. As Vic recalls seeing Haitian children playing frisbee with old records in the street, he tells me that he hopes this compilation, and recent plans to create a music museum in Haiti, will preserve this hugely influential genre for future generations.
Tanbou Toujou Lou, is now available physically worldwide as well as through Soundcloud, via Ostinato records. Music in this vein is also still being released today by labels such as Analog Africa in Germany, while in New York City bands such as Alsarah & The Nubatones, a Sudanese/Brooklyn combination, are continuing to make waves in the African musical community.
Next in his mission to tell the African narrative of the Atlantic, Vic will produce a second compilation showcasing the music of the Cape Verde islands of West Africa.
Text by Joe Clark
Photography provided by Vik Sohonie