The Orchestre Septentrional d'Haiti has weathered six decades of island rumble from earthquakes, political tempests, and economic woes, so it's only apt that the "Haitian Fireball" would kick off the July 4th weekend at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing in New York City's Damrosch Park. Still quite the kings of big band kompa or compas, they gave proof through the night of Friday, July 2, 2010, that their mojo was still there.
It was one of those balmy yet dry summer evenings in the City -- not the usual swampy vapors that sap the mood and hair – but just the perfect oxygen rush for an open air prance. "Sept," as the band is usefully called, also played at the first Midsummer Night Swing season, 12 years ago.
This year's program (June 29 to July 17, 2010) brings the jazz swing of the New Orleans Moonshiners, the Afrobeat of Femi Kuti & the Positive Force and the big band swing of the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, with special guest Frank Wess, among other grooves steaming up the world dance party.
For Sept, the local Haitian community came out in modest numbers, though those who did were ready to sway. They hardly seemed ruffled by the gringos who, having slipped on their clickiest heels, seemed primed for their chance to be humiliated in public while disfiguring their partners' dancin’ feet. Some had arrived as early as 6:30 pm, for a group dance lesson with Peniel Guerrier emceed by DJ Neva.
Good dancers, bad dancers – it didn't much matter what anyone looked like out on the floor, since the point was to let loose and celebrate. All eyes and ears were on the ripping horns, jaunty maracas and mellow vocals of the Haitian version of Cuba's legendary band, the Buena Vista Social Club.
This rotating band has recorded more than 300 tracks in a stylistic stew ranging from bolero to Afro-Caribbean. Though only 10 of its musicians flew in to fill the sounds of the usual 20, there could be little doubt why Septentrional is considered a national, if not international, monument.
During a brief intermission, I grabbed Septentrional director François Nichol Levy to get a few thoughts on Haiti's signature music and band.
Q: What does compas mean?
FL: Nobody can say exactly what it means. It's just a way of dancing. It's the way you move. It's very simple – two beats, one, two, one, two. Everybody can learn. When you hear compas, you start to move your body. Compas is a new type of music that started in about the 60s. That's really new compared to traditional music like Vodou, which started when Haiti was born.
Q: But the Orchestre Septentrional predated the '60s…
FL: Septentrional was before compas. Septentrional had to make adjustments to Congo rhythms, Ibo rhythms, Nago rhythms, some rhythms coming from the Africa of slaves. People like (sax and guitar player) Nemours Jean-Baptiste created compas in 1955, and it started to spread in dancing halls all over the country. Nemours made some very smart moves because all the bands that used to play only traditional music started to disappear. It was a very smart move to adapt to the new music.
Q: What do the new members bring to the band?
FL: We have a policy of recruiting new young musicians to keep the band going. The first thing we do is to bring on musicians with competences. They know how to play instruments, and they're very good. We try to play all types of music: Latin, rap, salsa, Cuban mambo, merengue from the Dominican Republic, even jazz. We try to adapt the band to every new idea, new wave, to keep in the mainstream.
Q: What are some of your musical influences?
FL: My musical education is very different from the rest of the band. My background is classical – I studied in France and at the music conservatory in Haiti.
Q: Are there any American musicians you especially admire?
FL: I love jazz – Chic Corea, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. I try to bring in these influences to the band.
Q: Does Septentrional still have any of its original members?
FL: Not any more -- one of the founders, Ulrick Pierre-Louis, died last year.
Q: What makes the band unique?
FL: Septentrional is more than a band: it's an institution. It's very rare in Haiti to have an institution. With all the political problems, social problems, economic problems around us, we do everything to pass (the orchestra) to the next generation. But we're a real exception: 62 years of existence is an exception in Haiti. Our biggest challenge is keeping the band going. It's not easy to live off of music full time.
Q: With the band's six decades of continuity, maybe you should manage the country!
FL: We try to stay out of politics.
Q: How did Septentrional respond to the earthquake?
FL: Since we have many, many friends in Haiti, with the earthquake the band tried to get involved in social activities, distributing food. We came down from Cap Haitian, which is the second-largest town in Haiti, and we went to Port-au-Prince to give out food, materials, sheets, clothes – we were there for two weeks.
Q: Did you also perform music?
FL: It was not possible to play music in Port au Prince at the time.
For the full Midsummer Night Swing schedule, go to: MidsummerNightSwing.org
MidSummer Night Swing
June 29 to July 17, 2010
West 62nd Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues
New York, NY 10023