By Larisa Karr
As the year opens and their big event approaches, organizers of the annual PapJazzHaiti’s festival are both excited and nervous.
“It’s been a huge challenge and right now, I’m holding my breath,” said Milena Sandler, general manager of the 8-day festival in Port-au-Prince. “We have artists coming from all over the world and we’re just hoping they make it here.”
As new strains of COVID-19 emerge and the world remains on lockdown, obtaining flights to Haiti has proven difficult for many fans, with many former attendees and journalists either unable to come or having to take unusually cumbersome routes. Despite the difficulties, Sandler and the Haiti Jazz Foundation persisted and the festival is scheduled to take place both in-person and virtually from Jan. 16 to 23, with 11 venues throughout Port-au-Prince and the suburb of Pétion-Ville holding events.
“We think it’s going to give us more visibility for people who can’t come,” said Sandler, 54. “Hopefully next year, it will be more normal here and we’ll have people who saw it online and will want to come to Haiti for it.”
The PapJazz Festival was founded in 2007 when the president of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, Joel Widmaier, met with a diplomat from Mexico to discuss holding a jazz festival in Haiti. Soon, embassies from countries like France, Germany, Switzerland, and Canada partnered with the foundation to bring the festival to life. Prestigious jazz musicians like vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and saxophonist Branford Marsalis made appearances, lending clout to PapJazz.
Sandler, who lives in Port-au-Prince, said the festival has grown tremendously since its inception 14 years ago. The venues initially attracted around 300 people per night, but that number has grown to 15,000-20,000 attendees throughout the week in recent years. In 2021, however, the capacity is significantly reduced due to coronavirus concerns. Because of in-person performance limitations, the festival will also be streamed online through Facebook Live.
“We have the Ministry of Health with us this year and we cannot do [anymore] than what we’re doing with respect to COVID-19,” said Sandler, who is also the general manager of the Haiti Jazz Foundation. “We’ll be taking the temperature of all attendees, passing out hand sanitizers and making sure everyone who is moving around wears a mask.”
Musicians from 14 countries will perform in main-stage concerts, after hours and restaurant locations, informal jazz sessions, and residencies. Sandler is especially excited to feature Cameroonian bassist Étienne Mbappé, French pianist Jacky Terrasson, American saxophonist James Martin, Guadeloupean pianist Malika Tirolien, and French harmonicist Olivier Ker Ourio.
Another special focus of the year will be the Creole Jazz Project, a residency bringing together six Creole artists which Sandler hopes to make an annual mainstay of the festival. Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Harvel Nakundi, and Gérald Kébreau are just a few of the musicians slated to take the stage, with 23 Haitian bands and individual performers on the bill overall.
“If you come to Haiti for the PapJazz Festival, you have a world tour of musicians,” said Sandler. “Our goal is to be considered as the best festival in the Caribbean.”