Mind and Body

Spending time with Mama Jazz and Papa Poul

The return visit of the Haitian band, Lakou Mizik, offers an opportunity to reflect on the way that music can bring about a culture of change

Photo by Toby Simon

Contemplative Sanba Zao quietly playing guitar, an old instrument that he found and mended, looking out at the water.

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

The band with Mama Jazz at the shore.

Photo by Toby Simon

A member of the band learning how to paddle board.

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By Toby Simon
Posted 7/22/19
The return visit of Lakou Mizik to Wellfleet carried with it the joyful and danceable sounds and a powerful message about the healing nature of music at a time when our democracy is in peril.
What are the appropriate songs that can be played and shared in response to the xenophobic rage being stoked by the current President? Is there a club in Providence or elsewhere in Rhode Island that would book an engagement with Lakou Mizik? Would Brown University’s Swearer Center consider hosting a conference on the intersection of music and politics from the Caribbean?

Inspired by the American revolution, self-liberated slaves in Haiti led a revolt against the slave-owning French colonial landowners beginning in 1791, the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state which was both free from slavery, and ruled by non-whites and former captives. It is a history that is rarely taught in history classes in U.S. high schools.

WELLFLEET, Mass. – About a year ago, the Haitian band Lakou Mizik played a gig at the Beachcomer in Wellfleet. I had met their tour manager in Haiti several years earlier who had introduced me to the band, at which time I instantly became a “fanatik.” They spent only one night with us before hitting the road for their next gig.

A word about the band: Lakou Mizik is an intergenerational group with members from ages 29 to 65. They are often referred to as a “powerhouse collective of Haitian roots music.” The band plays with a soulful energy and mix of styles that feels mystical, spiritual, moving and joyful.

They came together in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake nine years ago to show that Haiti was more than the images projected around the world.

This summer Lakou Mizik again returned to Wellfleet as part of their U.S. and Canada tour. This time, they played at a bigger venue and a different crowd at the Payomet Performing Arts Center. And, this time, they had several days between gigs. Nonstop travel and nightly gigs for the previous three weeks left them needing some serious down time.

Peter and I were happy to provide the beds, the food, the beer and respite to the band.

Mama Jazz and Papa Poul

They call us Mama Jazz and Papa Poul, with a ton of affection. Each morning they found us in the living room, greeting us with a kiss or hug and a big smile. “Mama Jazz!” they’d cry out each time we served dinner or brought out the oysters or showed them how to paddleboard.

Several moments of their time with us stand out. One night, Lamarre asked me about a guitar he saw in the closet. I took out the very old, out-of-tune, broken-strings guitar for him, which he immediately fixed.

And then Lamarre, the bassist, started playing. One by one the other members joined us. And the guitar was passed around the circle. Steeve Valcourt, one of the lead singers, is the son of Haitian musical legend Boulo Valcourt, who passed away two years ago. Steeve sang one of his father's songs. Sanba Zao, the elder in the band, is also a legend in the Haitian roots music movement. When he played, it was something he just made up on the spot and incredibly moving.

The tides of change
The band was fascinated by the tides. There really aren’t any in Haiti like ours here, so they would often sit for hours in the pine trees overlooking the bay and marvel at the water coming and going.

But this time around, perhaps what struck me the most was seeing people around and about in Wellfleet respond to the band wherever we went. The guys are quite shy by nature, in spite of their electric and dynamic performances, so it was always other people who initiated the conversations.

Lakou Mizik’s visit coincided with a politically ugly week in America. The current occupant of the White House, in showing his true xenophobic and racist colors, sparked outrage all over the world.

Perhaps it was the tone of the rhetoric or the anger it engendered that made people in Wellfleet respond to the band with an outpouring of kindness, curiosity, and generosity. And smiles.

Wherever we went, people wanted to talk to the band. One morning I took two of the guys to buy seeds to grow flowers and vegetables for their homes in Haiti. The owner of the store wanted to know where they were from and when they said “Haiti,” he began speaking French to them. And then insisted they buy 15 packets of seeds and get the next fifteen for free.

A universal language

One afternoon at one of the Wellfleet ponds, a woman started talking with one of the guys who was in the shallow area because he doesn't swim. She began to teach him.

Another guy sitting near the band wanted to talk music with them and what techniques they used. A couple asked the name of their band and then immediately started playing their music on their phone.

People seemed to go out of their way to reach out to guys who clearly looked and sounded different. They wanted to know more about them, their tour, and their impressions of our country.

With the daily ugliness we face, this was a beautiful thing to see unfold. These are the stories that rarely get told while the 24-hour news cycle focuses on the underbelly of America.

Lakou Mizik’s songs have joyful and danceable sounds but often carry messages about Haiti’s challenges, culture, history and politics. However, their main message is one of strength and at this moment, with our democracy in peril, it’s one we can use.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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