In Your Neighborhood

The Bands Visit

Lakou Mizik visits Wellfleet and brings with them Haitian spirit, culture and a sense of hope

Image from video by Zack Niles, the band's manager

The Haitian band, Lakou Mizik, stayed with Toby Simon and Peter Simon when they performed in Wellfleet, Mass., in late July.

By Toby Simon
Posted 8/6/18
The story is one that seems to need retelling again and again these days: how the power of music can connect us, as was the case when the Haitian Lakou Mizik visited Wellfleet in late July.
Will the city of Providence take seriously the suggestion to turn Cranston Street into an international boulevard that celebrates the mecca of diversity that is the West End? Will music, as it was during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, become a rallying point, connecting generations? More than reading about events in history books, is there something special about music and dance that enables us to pass down our stories?
ConvergenceRI is entering its sixth year of publication.
On Friday afternoon, Aug. 3, at 3:30 p.m., the African Alliance of Rhode Island was scheduled to hold a pop up market at the entrance to Roger Williams Park. That same day, at 5 p.m., a few hundred yards away, Gov. Gina Raimondo was scheduled to hold a ceremonial signing event to make it easy for food trucks to do business in Rhode Island, many of which offer ethnic fare.
The next day, on Saturday, Aug. 4, the Jamaican Association of Rhode Island was scheduled to celebrate the 56th Independence Day of Jamaica at Hope High School, featuring music, food and games, beginning at noon.
Earlier that morning, the 42nd annual Save The Bay Swim was scheduled, with more than 500 swimmers and 200 kayakers planning to participate in the swim from Newport to Jamestown.
And, all weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Newport Jazz Festival was scheduled to occur, one weekend after the Newport Folk Festival, celebrating that great indigenous American roots music, jazz.
There are plenty of positive vibrations to connect us in Rhode Island.

WELLFLEET, Mass. – I am not talking about the Broadway show that walked away with so many deserved Tony Awards this year.

I am talking about the Haitian band Lakou Mizik and their visit to Wellfleet, Mass., last week. Lakou Mizik is a multigenerational collective of musicians formed in the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake in Haiti in January 2010.

The group includes elder legends such as Sanba Zao, a 60-something professor of music and drumming in Port-au-Prince and follower of some vodou practices and beliefs.

Other members include Steeve Valcourt, son of the legendary musician Boulo Valcourt, and Jonas Attis, a talented poet who as a child survived a ferry disaster by clinging in the water to the bloated carcass of a dead cow.

The younger members of the group are all rising stars in the music scene as well. The sole female in the group, Nadine Remy, is a brilliant vocalist whose only experience prior to joining the band was singing in the church.

Spreading cheer, spirit and culture
The group is united in their mission to spread Haitian cheer wherever they go, to showcase the incredible Haitian spirit and culture, and to convey a sense of hope to all who are lucky enough to be in their presence.

As their tour manager Zach Niles wrote about the group’s formation after the earthquake: “Vodou chants, gospel ballads and folk songs filled the air in a brave attempt to deal with the overwhelming despair. Music, as it has throughout every tragedy and triumph in Haiti’s convoluted history, soothed, inspired, healed and brought people together.”

Zach and I met in the south of Haiti several years ago when he was working as the director of the Audio Institute division of Haiti’s only film school, Cine Institute. Zach has been highly involved with the band since they first got together in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

When we met Zach was already working on Lakou Mizik’s first CD, “Wa Di Yo.” And he was in the process of getting the band passports and visas so they could travel to folk festivals and other venues in the States and Canada. In Haiti this is a Herculean task.

Zach accomplished all that and more. For the past two years, Lakou Mizik has also performed at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz Fest.

Joyous and alive
On a warm summer night late in July, Lakou Mizik played in Wellfleet, Mass., at the Beachcomber Bar. The Comber, or the “Coma” – as locals often call the bar, has live music many nights of the week.

I rallied my troops here in Wellfleet to come hear the band even though Lakou Mizik didn’t go on until 10:30 at night. The crowd at The Comber was young, energetic, enthusiastic and kinda drunk. But they were feeling the music. The place was joyous and alive.

Peter and I also hosted the band at our home in Wellfleet. I am a huge fan, so having them in our house was beyond wonderful. We managed a quick trip to the ocean on a spectacular late afternoon sunny day. The band sampled some of Peter’s Wellfleet oysters and enjoyed a Caribbean meal on our back porch as the blood moon was rising. All that was missing was some cold Prestige but the guys settled for Coronas.

The band affectionately called me “Mama Djaz” and Peter “Papa Poul.”

Music as a unifying force
Music truly is a powerful way to bring people together, to introduce people to new cultures and new sounds. I’m not sure some of the revelers at the Comber could find Haiti on a map but they all left feeling they knew what a Haitian party was all about and it included a lot of singing, dancing, horns, and a rara parade. And maybe, just maybe, the first words that will come to mind when they talk about Haiti is “joy” rather than “Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”

The band got back to our house around 2:30 am. The following morning they slept in a bit and awoke at different times. But each of them wandered into the kitchen and gave me a hug and a kiss. And a big smile.

When I said “kafe?” they grinned and said “Wi, wi!” Outside, Sanba Zao and Steeve sat together under a tree, talking quietly while working on some new rhythms.

Eventually it was time to load up their van and motor to their next gig about three hours from the Cape. I asked if we could take a group photo outside and they enthusiastically obliged.

Peter and I stood in the middle of the band with members on both sides of us. Zach was taking the picture but as soon as we gathered, the group broke into song, serenading us with a beautiful song about the water spirit named Simbi. The chorus asks: “Who is this spirit?” to which Zao responds that one day we will know but that essentially we are all in the same waters, sharing our humanity.

Like “The Band’s Visit” on Broadway, this band’s visit also reminded us of the power to connect to people, appreciate our differences, and celebrate the truly evocative nature of music.

In Haiti we don’t say goodbye. It’s “nap we pita.” We will see you later.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.


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