The Culture Of Haiti Comes To Life

Alan Lomax In Haiti box set documents musicologist's historic 1930s expedition in Haiti
  • Photo: Shirley Collins
    Alan Lomax
  • Photo: Alan Lomax
    Alan Lomax (right) during his Haiti expedition
  • Photo: Alan Lomax
    An image of local drummers taken by Alan Lomax during his Haiti expedition
  • Photo: Alan Lomax
    An image of local bongo players taken by Alan Lomax during his Haiti expedition
  • The Alan Lomax In Haiti box set
December 17, 2009 -- 3:19 pm PST
By Fernando Gonzalez /

Editor’s note, Jan. 25, 2010: In mid-December, ran this feature on musicologist Alan Lomax’s sojourn to Haiti in the 1930s. His recording of Haiti’s culture and the recent release of that material may now prove more important than ever given the destruction caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

On Jan. 22, many notable music, film and television stars teamed for the multi-network airing of “Hope For Haiti Now,” a benefit concert to raise funds for Haiti’s disaster relief programs. The companion Web site provides a number of ways to donate to help rescue and rebuild Haiti.

In mid-December 1936, musicologist Alan Lomax, then 21, arrived in Haiti on a musical and cultural research and field-collecting expedition. He brought with him a cumbersome turntable-cutting unit for recording to disc and a stack of aluminum discs. Over the next four months he would struggle with language barriers; contracting intestinal malaria; dealing with a separation from his fiancée, Elizabeth Harold; cash-flow problems; and difficulties with receiving record supply shipments — all while lugging his 155-pound recording device around the country without a car.

Despite these obstacles, by March 1937 Lomax had collected nearly 50 hours of music and sound across 1,500 recordings, six short black-and-white 8mm films and hundreds of pages of notes. It was a remarkable effort, but for years it seemed it had been all for naught.

As late as the 1970s, Lomax examined his Haiti recordings but the noise and distortion contained within discouraged any notions of a release. (His Haitian expedition was the last time he would use the aluminum disc system for his field recordings.) The project was indefinitely shelved until the late '90s, when the Association for Cultural Equity and Alan Lomax Archive undertook a project that resulted in preservation work by the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center.

The aluminum discs were transferred at the LOC's Sound Lab in March 2000. It took nearly 10 years to transfer audio from the source discs and catalog, restore and master the recordings. Three-time GRAMMY-winning producer Steve Rosenthal and GRAMMY-winning engineer Warren Russell-Smith, along with engineer Will Berlind, worked at the Magic Shop studio in New York City, employing digital technologies to peel off layer after layer of noise to reveal the music underneath.

Some 70-plus years later, the result is the stunning box set Alan Lomax In Haiti. Released in November, the set was curated by ethnomusicologist and Haiti scholar Gage Averill and includes 10 CD volumes featuring Lomax's collection of music and films; a transcription of Lomax's journal (edited by his niece, Ellen Harold); a facsimile of his annotated map; and a hardcover book with extensive well-researched notes about the people, the historic circumstances of his expedition and the music.

"I've been working on Lomax projects since 1995," says Rosenthal. "The thing you always have to remember with a Lomax project is that you need to retain a sense of place in the recording. It's an interesting battle in that you want to de-noise and restore the music, but you don't want to sanitize it. You need to retain some of the original 'problems' because that will help you understand where he recorded it and how he recorded it."

Volume one, Meringues And Urban Music From Haiti, showcases a style Lomax gave short shrift because he considered it the music of the urban elites. The samples suggest a sweet elegant blend of Caribbean grooves and jazz influences.

Other volumes feature Mardi Gras music, carnaval music, rara music, children's songs, work songs, examples of the nearly extinct romance song, and French-style songs — sung in a mix of archaic French and Kreyòl. Addressing one of the most intriguing and controversial aspects of Haitian culture, especially given the sensationalistic reporting at the time, the set also features Lomax's recordings of ritual Voudou music and ceremonial music of different branches within Vodou. "Lomax was the first to record a Voudou ceremony from start to finish," notes Averill.

One of the major partners in the project is the Miami-based Green Family Foundation. A repatriation of a full set of the recordings to Haiti is planned for spring 2010 and Green Family Foundation President Kimberly Green says, "The organization we hope will house the actual set and would make it available to everybody is FOKAL [Fondation Connaissance et Liberté], which has a library and several educational programs."

When he arrived in Haiti, Lomax had already worked alongside his father, folklorist John Avery Lomax, and their field-collecting efforts throughout the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest, and South regions of the United States had produced the book American Ballads And Folk Song, and the groundbreaking set of recordings by folk musician Huddie Ledbetter, best known as Lead Belly.

Lomax's extraordinary 60-year-career would take him from Kentucky to Galicia, Spain; and the impact of his work on cultures worldwide is immeasurable. His archival contributions include the first-ever recordings by Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and David "Honeyboy" Edwards, as well as recordings by Pete Seeger and Jelly Roll Morton. In the mid-'90s, he completed work on the Global Jukebox, an interactive software tool designed to organize and synthesize the findings of anthropology and musicology. Lomax died in 2002 at age 87, and was awarded a posthumous Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2003.

But back in 1935, Lomax followed up his experiences with his father with expeditions to the Georgia Sea Islands, Florida, and the Bahamas. According to Averill, what he saw and heard during those trips furthered his interest in the African roots of African-American culture and the connections between African rooted cultures in the Americas.

"He was really hearing, and thinking about, how music seemed to relate across national boundaries," says Averill. "[Lomax collaborator] Zora [Neal Hurston] had an interest in Haiti, which she got from reading a book during the Haitian occupation. They talked about maybe going to Haiti, which they considered the most African-influenced region in the new world."

The difference between Alan and the other ethnographers was that he was deeply focused on the sound recording as his methodology. [Anthropologist Melville] Herskovits and others who went to Haiti would use recordings, but by and large they were writing. Alan wanted to record. That's what he brought to the ethnography of the Caribbean. He was interested in producing what he later called an alternative oral history."

Both a fascinating anthropological document and a stunning collection of music, Alan Lomax In Haiti is a fine example of a people's history captured in sound and film.

(Fernando Gonzalez is a contributing editor to The International Review of Music. He is based in Miami.)


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