A seaside beach resort in a country typically categorized by its poverty is the last place one would expect the closing event for an international jazz festival. Makeshift VIP sections with wicker furniture were roped off to the front of the stage, while early comers sat behind them in seats sinking in the sand. While Decameron Indigo Beach Resort and Spa—the former Club Med under Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier—is known for its expansive property, the shore where the closing event for the Port-Au-Prince International Jazz Festival was held seemed particularly small that night as hundreds of people situated themselves along the beach.
While the audience watched Grammy-winning artist Norman Brown and the Strings perform, the festival organizers Joel Widmaier and Milena Sandler were moving back and forth between backstage, the press and artist lounge area, and the crowd. It was a long week—and it showed.
Although slightly weary looking, Widmaier had a serene look on his face as he watched the performances. It was clear that jazz was truly his passion.
Widmaier is one of three sons of music and broadcast legend Herby Widmaier. The elder Widmaier founded Radio Metropole in Port-au-Prince in the 1970s. The Haitian pioneer introduced both FM radio and 24-hour broadcasting to Haiti.
“It’s because of the radio that jazz is able to have such a strong presence in Haiti,” Widmaier said during a master class hosted at the Brazilian Cultural Center in Port-au-Prince. Brazil was the country of honor for this year’s festival. “Our goal is to raise the genre to a new level. If there’s a jazz festival today, it’s because of the power of the radio.”
The concert on the beach featured famed Haitian electronic dance music DJ Michael Brun at Decameron on Jan. 27. This signaled the end of the twelfth edition of the PAP Jazz International Festival where a variety of jazz artists from around the world showcased their music to audiences across Haiti’s capital. In total, 13 countries were represented in the lineups including Switzerland, Canada, and the United States.
“The diversity of the music and eclecticism you hear at the festival is unlike any other,” Sandler, the general manager for PAP Jazz, said. “Every year, we have musicians from at least 12 countries participating.”
Despite the overall success of the festival for the past twelve years, the organizers faced their share of mishaps and struggles putting together the festival that outspends much more than it earns.
For Widmaier, the key to the festival’s longevity has been the passion that drives the work.
“We’re not making a living from the festival,” he said. In fact, over the course of the festival’s existence, the events have been mainly free to the public.
In a country known for its class divide, where pep la (the masses) have little to no access to simple luxuries like movie theaters and dine-in restaurants, Widmaier and Sandler—through the insistence of various embassies across the country—have managed to democratize entertainment with the festival. During the eight days of the festival, only the opening and closing events were paid entrances; the rest were open to the general public.Their commitment to expose Haiti’s people to jazz didn’t stop at the free concerts. As part of the festival, master classes were hosted with jazz greats like Norman Brown. The umbrella foundation of the festival (Haiti Jazz Foundation) also funds music education at local schools to expose the youth to jazz.
“One of the important components of what we do is training the current generation,” Sandler said. The idea is to have a “partnership with the schools to make sure [Haiti has] new musicians who can reinforce the jazz scene in the country.”
The foundation provides the schools with instruments, books, and instructors to teach the children.
By working with the school, we’re creating a new generation of musicians who will embrace the changing scene of jazz, she said.
“Traditional jazz is getting older,” Widmaier said, “but we have a new generation of new musicians who are very eager to learn and very talented.
“Jazz will stay around.”
The 13th edition of the PAP Jazz International Festival will take place Jan. 19 – Jan. 26, 2019 in Port-au-Prince.