PORT-AU- PRINCE – The assorted crowd began gathering shortly after dawn under a cool Caribbean evening as each member of Brandi Disterheft Trio, a Canadian Jazz band, took the stage at the band shell on the Champs de Mars. After the first set, the band received polite applauses.
At the courtyard of the French Cultural Center, a group of smartly dressed young professionals sat on metal chairs and they too, gave polite cheers to the Como Asesinar a Felipes Hip Hop Jazz ensemble from Chile.
And so it was last in this capital city as the 3rd annual Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival as acts from Canada, Chile, Mexico, Spain, France, Switzerland, the United States and of course, Haiti, performed in different parts of the city to different crowds from January 24 to January 31.
Bringing the jazz festival to the land of Konpa and Roots is a way to diversify the musical taste of a nation that is experimenting for years with its own version of “Jazz”.
The acts that received the warmest reception was the old familiar beethova Obas, Reginald Policard and Brooklyn’s own Buyu Ambroise and the Blues in Red. Perhaps, the most puzzling act was the Chilean band, whose Jazz version was understood by only a handful.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” said Joel Widmaer, a drummer and scion of Haitian Jazz movement. “The music was deep. There were lots of things going on now. This is the kind of music you will be hearing about 10 years from now.”
Beyond the music, festival organizers hope that the few who dare to visit Haiti during that time will come away with a more positive view of the beleaguered nation.
“We want them to see that Haiti has other things to offer,” said Fabiola Leger, logistics manager for the festival. “We want them to see it’s not as bad as they hear.”
But if having the festival play on the popular Champs de Mars square is a way to get the average Haitian to enjoy the finer side of Jazz, it will take a while. On that recent evening, a group of men watching the show broke out into a conversation.
“You have to be a millionaire to enjoy that kind of music,” said one of them with the assuredness of a true Haitian. “Or you have to have stolen a million dollars already.”
While that would be news to the legions of Jazz devotees across the world, the man’s comments were received as gospel to those around him who have never traveled outside of Haiti.
The festival also featured a series of workshops and seminars on different aspect of Jazz at various locations, all aim at educating people on America’s true art form.
And that moniker was in full display because Alvin Atkinson and the Sound Merchants, brought down the house at the French Cultural Center – a restored gingerbread mansion in Turgot – with his electric drumming and a funky style that dazzled the crowd.
Perhaps, the most amazing part of the weeklong festival was the jam session. During one evening at the Oloffson Hotel, musicians from all type of genres got on stage and jammed as if they had been playing for the longest time. The only giveaway was that they were looking at each other so they could follow. One session features a brilliant combo of Haitian percussionists mixing vibrantly with the keyboardist and electric drum. This fusion works well and feels like a true Creole mix, something that Haitians should consider developing as its own. The conga player slides his fingers along the goat skin drum, acting like a accompanying base to the keys and they kept it going for more than 15 minutes to the delight of the crowd.
“We have some really talented people in this country,” said Richard Morse, the manager of the popular band Ram, who also moonlights as the hotel manager.