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Jazz in the South: A feisty Kyeyol experience

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Gregory Privat, Etienne Charles and Jacques Schwarz-Bart at Jazz in the South.

A magnificent ram goat, accompanied by his all-in-white Bobo Shanti minder, noses the sand of Laborie’s Rudy John beach, on St Lucia’s south west coast. 


Beyond the susurrus of the lazy waves’ percussion, St Vincent floats twenty miles offshore. Onstage, Denis Lapassion and his band from Cayenne, French Guiana caress the warm currents of a late Sunday afternoon with cadences from the Amazon rainforest and feisty Kwèyol kaséko rhythms. 


The beach buzzes with picnicking families; village fishermen resting their nets in favour of shots of rum and robust fatigue; old tanties selling homemade delicacies; kids clamouring for surfside pony rides and travellers from afar with a thirst for Creole Jazz.


This is the 17th edition of Jazz in the South, the flagship project of Labowi Promotions, a not-for-profit community organisation established some 20 years ago by a small group of Laborie-based cultural activists, with the objective of enhancing “social togetherness and harmony” and promoting “economic development through cultural events and expression.”


The community-based jazz festival has an enviable track record of presenting some of the best Caribbean jazz performers, as well as African artistes like last year’s headliner, Malian vocalist Fatoumata Diawara. 


Like many homegrown cultural initiatives in the region, Jazz in the South is underfunded to the extent that this year’s festival has been trimmed down from four concerts to this single performance plus Erol Josué’s Haitian dance and Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s sax master classes in Castries. But what’s been lost in quantity has in no way compromised Labowi’s highest quality standards. The afternoon into night descarga promises some of the region’s most gifted young and young-at-heart performers, with the best surprise left for last.


True to the Labowi tradition of programming international with rising local talent, the Vieux Fort-based Shomari (Maxwell on keyboards) and Wendell (Richards on sax) Jazz Project, take the stage in the wake of Lapassion. 


In tune with the gentle waves, the young ensemble take a slow glide through Marley, Sparrow, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, their creolised version of the Sting hit—transformed into An Englishman in Vieux Fort and the Lord Melody classic kaiso Mama Look a Boo Boo. 


As the sun dips into the sea taking the temperature with it, young Martiniquan pianist Gregory Privat and his Children of Cyparis quintet, featuring Gaudeloupean master percussionist/drummer Sonny Troupé, invoke both bélé and gwo ka rhythmic traditions with the elegiac suite, Tales of Cyparis. 


Martinique like Cuba has a long tradition of virtuoso pianists—from Marius Coultier to Paulo Rosine, Alain Jean Marie to Mario Canonge. Gregory Privat, son of José, who succeeded Rosine as pianist in the legendary Antillean band Malavoi, is a worthy heir who plays far beyond his already impressive credentials. 


Privat uniquely sifts the ashes of his island’s volcano, for a narrative with which to frame the flow of his music; a subtle yet volatile flow, which with a sudden change of tempo is capable of shifting from the lyrical to the explosive eruption of Mt Pelée in 1902, an event of both geological and cultural significance. 


It was the town of St Pierre, close to Mt Pelée’s base, that was the cradle of Creole jazz, when in the 1880s bélé musicians descended from the surrounding mornes to infuse European dance forms with Afro-Creole rhythms to create the biguine. 


While the 1902 eruption utterly destroyed this elegant “Paris of the Antilles” and its 30,000 inhabitants, there was one survivor, the inveterate tafia sucker Cyparis, whose drunkenness ensured his safety as he’d been locked up in a solitary “cachot”, with walls thick enough to withstand the inferno. Cyparis was pulled from the ashes to become a star turn in Barnum’s circus as “le grand brulé”, another object of exotic fascination. 


Privat’s Tales of Cyparis, both commemorates and celebrates this survivor. Onstage Privat’s rippling runs, evoking the biguine of those incendiary days, rode a backing track of Jean Bernabé voicing Cyparis’ memoir, with Troupé’s furious gwo ka beats and plaintive guitar adding brio and colour to what will be recognised as a modern Creole classic.


For the full star-studded night sky finale Guadeloupean saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart led his Jazz Racine Haiti ensemble in an invocation to the Vodou lwas, voiced in spine-tingling style by Haitian oungan, vocalist and dancer Erol Josué. 


Schwarz-Bart’s most recent album, from which his set was selected, has made him a major contender in this year’s French Grammys. 


A logical and organic development of his passion for the Vodou chants and Haitian folksongs his mother (novelist Simone) sang him throughout his childhood, his adult experiments with Creole rhythms and performances in Haiti with konpas kings Tabou Combo, Frère Jacques’ acute jazz ear was piqued by the extraordinary musical sophistication of Vodou chants. 


So long relegated to mere “folk music”, Schwarz-Bart now compels listeners to attune to the true complexities of this sacred music and particularly its dialogue with silence, as an enabler of the space where mysteries reside.


Erol Josué’s invocation of Atibon Legba, (lwa of the crossroads connecting this world with that of the spirits), the chant with which all Vodou ceremonies begin, tapped into the holistic power of a living tradition. His layered baritone made palpable all the voices of Vodou history, his nuances embracing the pain, triumph and mystery, which are hallmarks of Haitian culture. 


As he danced Legba’s chant, Rudy John beach became an al fresco peristyle, the energies of the sea and the trees above the bay, released by the rhythms of Claude Saturne’s petwo drum. 


Gregory Privat was recalled to play keyboards for a divinely inspired set; Etienne Charles’ trumpet harmonising with Frère Jacques’ tenor sax, which nearly dwarfed him. Under the crescent moon, with white surf now licking the beach, Vodou chants (Kouzin for the lwa of the land) and traditional Haitian compositions (like the Kontredans given an entirely modern feel by fusing it with samba), synthesised with biting New York jazz. 


There were unlikely conversations between Arnaud Dolmen’s drums and Jacques’ sax (on Blues Jonjon, with brass leading skin, melody informing rhythm) and the climax of Josué’s thrilling final flourishing fluid barefoot dance, accompanied only by petwo drum and Frère Jacques ramping sax, which surely brought the power down. 


The silence which eventually settled over Labowi, is still resonating with sounds from the past, carrying all who heard into a richer future.


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