Writing in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Rebecca Solnit claimed that “one of the challenges of a natural disaster is that there is no one to blame, to allow us to make the shift from the difficulty of grief that is a kind of love to the ease of scorn or loathing that is a kind of hatred.” Natural disasters strain our conceptions of causes and effects and disrupt our process of understanding how to prevent such events in the future. Yet as we learned from the faulty levees in New Orleans in 2005 and the poorly built schools in Sichuan in 2008, no natural disaster is entirely natural. About a year and a half after hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike swept through the Caribbean wreaking havoc on the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Haiti once again faces a loss of life on a catastrophic and unfathomable scale. As I write this, estimates of those killed by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck outside Port-au-Prince January 12th range from forty-five thousand to 200,000. And once again, the damage and impact of this natural disaster has depended to no small extent on a number of historical, political, and environmental realities which themselves have been a long time in the making. As Carl Lindskoog explains in his very short overview of Haiti’s twentieth century, Haiti didn’t become a poor nation on its own. (For a more in-depth examination of the U.S.’s recent involvement in the country, try Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood.)
But while the world’s attention turns to the country once again in a time of distress, I have been thinking about one of the more powerful musical projects I have come across in recent months: Alan Lomax’s field recordings of early twentieth-century Haitian music. By the time Lomax travelled to Haiti in 1936, the country was already starkly marked by the centuries it had served as a petri dish of Spanish, French, and American imperialist policies. The second independent nation in the western hemisphere (the fruit of the only successful slave revolt in history), Haiti was most recently reeling from nearly two decades of U.S. occupation which had ended only years before the ethnomusicologist arrived. The teenage Lomax, who had already begun recording the sounds of rural American folk music for which he is most well known today, spent four months in Haiti, and used an unwieldy apparatus of metal cylinders and more moving parts than was probably advisable in the humid tropical climate to capture sounds that have rarely been heard beyond the island’s shores. What he recorded was a vibrant hybrid musical culture that bore the traces of the nation’s special place in world politics: Jazz instrumentation introduced by occupying American Marines mixed with Spanish and African rhythms; songs that sound to my ears like traditional spirituals combined with pounding, persistent drums and captivating vocals. Some of the songs were meant to accompany parades associated with Vodou festivals, while others seem to be more suited to the secular surroundings of the dancehall. Unbelievably, these sounds sat on an archive’s shelf for nearly three quarters of a century before Harte Recordings released them in a 10 CD box set a couple of months ago. The final result, Alan Lomax in Haiti, comes in a lavish case with two books, a map, and other furnishings to make the package more closely resemble the field office from which it sprung. But the most important part of the collection is the often exuberant and always haunting music: the hiss that coats the voices and the muffled quality of the drums only adding to the sense that these recordings are documents from an era long gone, sounds uniquely shaped by the place and circumstances of their creation.
Francis Reynolds is managing editor of Guernica. Read his last recommendation, of Arundhati Roy’s Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, here.