25 January 2010

Monday's mp3: Haiti Now, Haiti Then

various artists: Alan Lomax in Haiti (Harte Recordings)

I recently hung out with a friend who isn't insensitive to others' suffering, but he changed the channel every time something about Haiti came on the TV. I understand, and even sympathize: TV news has a way of turning tragedy into sappy, heart-wrenching drama while ignoring the big picture. We hear about a woman pulled from the rubble, or a child orphaned in the earthquake. We don't hear about the geopolitical, social, economic, and environmental problems that contributed to the tragedy or resulted from it. It's an odd kind of zen "nowness," this isolated view one gets from TV news.

Getting into that isn't really the place of this global-culture blog. But instead of getting compassion fatigue, I suggest digging a little deeper. Check out the Christian Science Monitor's Haiti diary, or articles on commondreams.org. Or post your own resources in the comments.

There really is music at the heart of this post, and it starts back in March 2004 when the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center obtained the Alan Lomax Collection. You probably know that Lomax was a tremendous collector/recorder of sounds and other cultural information from all over the planet. The collection includes more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of motion picture film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 scholarly books and journals, hundreds of photographic prints and negatives, and more.

Alan Lomax in Haiti makes a wealth of music and information available for the first time to the general public. The box set includes 10 CDs and rich liner notes on various types of music, including Mardi Gras songs, Meringues and Urban music, Troubador music, the sounds of Vodou, romantic songs, children's songs, labor songs, and worship songs. Lomax recorded all of these songs during a four-month tour of Haiti in 1936-1937, and we have to note that the sound quality sounds like what you'd expect from 75-year old field recordings: scratchy, noisy, thin -- yet still fascinating.

This song was recorded on March 19, 1937, and relates a chilling tale of murder, made more poignant in light of post-earthquake looting and violence:
I heard a shout behind the hill
Let's go see what's going on
Brother Lombri killed a woman
for kongo pea soup

[mp3] students of L'Ecole Normal, Port-au-Prince: "Deyè mòn-la, ann prale wè" (Behind the hill, let's go see)

from Alan Lomax in Haiti

The collection includes plenty of more-lighthearted material, including the mutual-aid society songs on Volume 9: Konbit and Banbock: Songs of Labor and Leisure. The music doesn't have the upbeat swing of calypso, versions of which were popular elsewhere in the Caribbean at the same time, and probably will be less engaging to the casual listener. For the culturally thirsty listener who can afford the three-digit price tag of this set, however, a world of learning far removed from the TV news awaits.

Buy Box Set of 10 CDs
The Haiti Box blog (selling the box set for $115, with $15 going directly to local disaster relief organizations in Haiti)
Alan Lomax at wikipedia
Alan Lomax on Facebook
The Alan Lomax Collection

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