In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick granted the western third of the island of Hispaniola to the French crown. Afterwards, with the colony known by the new name of Saint Domingue, sugar production played a central role in its economic development, making it one of the most economically important and profitable French territories during the 18th century. This course of economic development profoundly affected the demographic makeup of the new French acquisition, which was directly related to the establishment of African slavery in the colony. For example, imports of slaves increased dramatically during the first 30 years from 3,000 to 47,000 and reached a peak nearly 500,000 slaves just before the first successful slave revolt broke out. The white French colonial elite, meanwhile, was a tiny fraction of the population. However, like in any slave society, they exercised fierce control over the subjugated populations. The socio-racial divisions were not so neatly split, however. In addition to those two extremes, there were intermediate layers called afranchi and the petit blancs. The afranchi were the offspring of relations between French whites and black women and they enjoyed legal and social benefits that were denied to the black slaves.

This demographic mix, of which the African presence was the largest part, set the framework for the cultural and musical development of Saint Domingue, which was renamed Haiti after the triumph of the revolution in 1804. The cultural syncretism that is common throughout the Caribbean region took on specific characteristics in Haiti with the development of a unique language called kreyòl (Creole) that included influences from various African languages, French, English and Spanish. Although kreyòl was not officially recognized until the 1980s, it was the common language of the huge majority of the poor population of Haiti. In religious and musical terms, similar to other examples that arose from the African diaspora, such as Santeria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil, Vodou is a syncretic religion that is the most important and influential in Haiti. Vodou involves a series of complex rituals in which music plays a fundamental role and varies based on geographic differences and the purpose of the ritual. The ritual music is part of the process of invoking the deities, or iwas. These also varied among the different African nations, so the Rada, Petwo, Ibo and Congo rituals had their own syncretic characteristics. The Rada ritual music, for example, consists of three main drums called boulasegon and manman, from smaller to larger. These had a cowhide skin stretched over a wooden body using a system of wedges. In the Petwo rituals, two wood drums covered with goatskin were used. In both nations, the ritual music served as a bridge between the worshippers and the iwas.

Rara 

In Haiti, as in other Caribbean countries, Carnival is celebrated during the week preceding Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Unlike other Caribbean nations, however, where the celebration ends until the next season, in Haiti the Rara begins and continues through the other weekends of Lent all around the country. Rara celebrations take place in the streets and consist of masked musical bands and groups that are joined by spectators on their routes. As they make their rounds, the rara bands stop and ask for money from socially recognized people. In return, the leaders of the groups perform their best dances. These bands’ musical instruments are homemade. The kone is a kind of trumpet made of zinc that can measure up to three feet long. The vaksin is another kind of trumpet made of bamboo. Also used is the tambou, a drum made with animal hide and the graj, an instrument similar to the Dominican güiro. Joining these are rudimentary instruments made of such diverse items as soft drink cans and beer bottles.

Popular music 

During the colonial period, dance music in Haiti was influenced by the European traditions and European rhythms such as the contredanse, the cuadrilla, the waltz and the polka. Local forms of music in the Caribbean melded with the neo-African rhythms and structures to create new forms, with one example being mereng or merengue. In the beginning, Haitian merengue was a kind of dance music reserved for the upper classes. The music’s base rhythm consisted of five notes and was very similar to the Spanish cinquillo. The arrangements were generally written for piano and wind instruments. Among the most recognized Haitian merengue composers were Occide Jeanty, Ludovic Lamothe and Franck Lassegue.

Meanwhile, misik twobadou music was strongly influenced by Cuban guajiro music because of the large number of Haitian workers who migrated to Cuba during the harvest season. Also, radio broadcasts from eastern Cuba influenced the development of this authentic Haitian music. Like many Cuban songs, the Haitian merengs and konpas tended to describe the joys and misfortunes of rural life. These forms were performed by small groups with instruments such as the guitar, maracas, graj, drum and the maniba.

In the early 20th century, the Haitian elite, in reaction to U.S. influence in their country and fearing the disappearance of traditional music through assimilation, began returning to their cultural roots in the form of religious Vodou rituals. Composers such as Ludovic Lamothe, among others, introduced melodies inspired by Vodou rituals as orchestra arrangements. The most famous group in this Vodou-jazz movement was Jazz des Jeunes. The group’s style appealed to the Haitian people by combining folk heritage, rhythm, and the body movements of voudu rituals.

In the 1950s, saxophonist Nemours Jean-Baptiste and his group Ensemble aux Calebasses introduced konpa to the Haitian musical scene. This style, which borrowed from Dominican merengue ripiao, is characterized by a slower tempo and sexual content with double meanings. Konpa or kompa direct became one of the most popular musical genres in the local and international music scene. The influence of other Caribbean rhythms such as calypso, U.S. jazz, swing and, more recently, hip hop can be seen in it.

The variety of ritualistic and popular music is seen in the number of new genres that have taken hold in Haiti. In addition to those mentioned above are mini-djaz compamizik rasin, rap and ragga, the latter two as part of the African diaspora experience and the processes of globalization.

Author: Ileana Rivera Martínez
Published: May 14, 2012.

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