Ches Smith and We All Break Meld Haitian Vodou and Jazz on “Path of Seven Colors”
The history of jazz is closely linked to that of the Caribbean. These deep cultural ties were best exemplified by a trade route that once existed between Cuba, Mexico, and New Orleans. But much of this story has to do with Haiti as well.
During the Haitian Revolution, which straddled the turn of the 19th century, many French landowners of Quisqueya – the island’s original Native American name, renamed by the Spaniards Hispaniola – fled to escape the bloodshed. Some of them brought their Afro-Haitian slaves to eastern Cuba, where this culture was expressed as Tumba Francesa. In my ancestral homeland, Puerto Rico, it manifested itself as Bomba. And in New Orleans, Afro-Haitian rhythms, alongside those of Cuba and Puerto Rico, have become the rhythmic DNA of second-line marches, ragtime, blues and voodoo culture. It provided a rhythmic start to the music we know as jazz.
This collective history and its influences are hardly touched upon, or even mentioned, in most jazz stories. But that might start to change with the arrival of Path of the Seven Colors, an album by Ches Smith and We All Break, which arrives this Friday on Pyroclastic Records.
Smith, best known as a drummer in the experimental music scene, first encountered the musical tradition of Haitian voodoo over 20 years ago. “I was captivated,” he writes in the album’s cover notes, “because the central things in the different music I play – polyrhythm, polytonality, improvisation, extended timbral awareness, tension and looseness, aggressiveness and channeled power, and above all surprise – I found, and again, in this traditional form.
To realize his vision, Smith brought together a stellar ensemble with Miguel Zenón on alto saxophone, Matt Mitchell on piano and Nick Dunston on bass. They work perfectly with the folk elements of the album – the work of master drummers Daniel Brevil, Markus Schwartz and Fanfan Jean Guy Rene, as well as singer Sirene Dantor Rene. Their knowledge of the spiritual side of voodoo blends perfectly with Smith’s avant-garde compositions.
WBGO is proud to present We all break up, a one-hour documentary film by Mimi Chakarova, which retraces the scenes of Path of the Seven Colors.
Minimalist in nature, Chakarova’s film focuses on studio action, interspersed with the musicians’ choice intuitions. To accentuate the spiritual character of the project, beautiful images shot in Haiti meet a moment of silence at 39:40, lingering on the image of a young child. Impressionist views of nature, and a few other faces in profile, follow in more silence – ending with the haunting image of a lonely woman, dressed in black and red. These are the colors of Legba, as it is known in Haitian voodoo, and Elegua in Cuban Santería: guardian of the crossroads.
Nothing is born in a vacuum. New York City has had an established Haitian community, centered primarily in Brooklyn, for many years. The sounds of rocksteady Haitian Compas (Konpa) can be heard echoing in dance halls across the borough. There have also been earlier attempts to merge jazz with authentic Afro-Haitian rhythm – by pianist Ernst Marcelin and his band Freefall, Mozayik, as well as master drummer Frisner Augustin and La Troupe Makandal.
In Miami, avant-garde guitarist Monvelyno Alexis and trumpeter Jean Caze also merged jazz and Haitian rhythms. And young musicians like Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Godwin Louis explored the same idea in New York.
We All Break is closer to the Machito Afro-Cuban hybrid, whose integration of improvisation and harmony concepts from jazz merged with Afro-Cuban rhythms in New York City in the 1940s. This ultimately led to to the incorporation of deeply rooted Afro-Cuban drums, melodies and religious chants – as evidenced by Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Mark Weinstein, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band in New York and Irakere in Cuba.
The spirit of fusion on Path of the Seven Colors is well voiced by Smith and others in the film. “What really enlightened me was seeing how a lot of things I knew – even things from Puerto Rico – had their roots in Haitian music,” observes Zenón.
He later articulates a common goal: “A lot of times you read the newspaper and realize that… you don’t really get the full extent of what’s going on in the world, they just tell you what they want from you. say. So we were talking about what is happening in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. All of these places are buzzing and dealing with many different things. So it’s nice to feel that we have a lot of things in common and that we are all fighting for the same things.
Path of the Seven Colors will be released Friday on Pyroclastic Records; pre-order here.