As someone who doesn’t drive, if there’s one thing I’ve done a lot of in my life it’s catching taxis. And it’s been one of best educations I’ve had. The reason why? Always talk to the driver. They’ve seen a lot, some have seen it all. But they really do have the best stories, and more often, they have the best taste in music.
I’ll never forget the Ethiopian guy who would blast me his Amha Records collection and turned me onto Alemayehu Eshete in a big way. Or hearing Mujava’s Township Funk broken not in a club, but in a series of taxis in Johannesburg. Or this incredible Macedonian guy who shared with me his deep love of Esma Redžepova. Even the guy who claimed as a kid he used to wash (former Yugoslav leader) Tito’s plane – true or not, all these guys taught me a lot about the world and most importantly some of my best new musical discoveries have been in the back of taxis.
A few weeks back, I found myself in New York City, working on a TV shoot. We’d finished work very late. Around 3am, the guys I were with had decided to have a drink, whereas I’d decided to head back to the hotel. I jumped in a cab and started chatting with the driver, he was Haitian and was quite amused that this little guy from Nouvelle Zelande was asking all these questions about Papa Doc. He had the radio on, it was a Top 40 station and David Guetta was now sound tracking my early morning journey along the streets of Manhattan. I asked if he had any of ‘his music’ with him and to that he looked at me and gave this sly smile, slipped on a CD-R from a pouch of loose blank CD’s and straight away I was being intoxicated to this incredible vibe of some seriously fast rhythms – it was exhilarating.
Sitting in the back, I went through everything I remembered of Haitian music: the odd Kompa mix on youtube, a documentary I watched a few years back on the whole Rap Kreyol movement, the excellent Soul Jazz release from a few years back which gave me my first introduction to the music of Haitian Vodou and it’s influence on the music of Cuba, Brazil and especially New Orleans.
But this music my new Haitian friend was playing me was different. At it’s heart it had the drums and rhythms of voodoo and the tempo, but it sounded, for lack of a better term – fresh! Underpinning a lot of these tracks he was playing me was a pounding electronic kick-drum and there were elements of instrumentation that I hadn’t heard before.
My driver looked at me and could clearly see his music was having a profound impact on me and he laughed “so you like the Mizik Rasin!” I had no idea what he was talking about.
A few days later, I went to Miami, with a Haitian population numbering around the 200,000 mark. In the neighbourhood of Little Haiti, you’ve got an authentic taste of the Caribbean just a short drive inland from South Beach. Armed with the ultimate conversational ice-breaker – my curiousity for “Mizik Rasin” – on many more taxi journeys around Little Haiti, artist names like RAM, Boukman Eksperyans and a mysterious guy and brilliant singer named “Azor” became the frequent response to my “Qu’est-ce que?”.
I fell in love with Azor’s sound, and every time I asked a driver if they had any “Racine Azor”, they would laugh heartily and then slip in a disc, and there it was again – that magic voice that has so entranced me back in New York. I would learn by the end of the week that “Racine Azor” was actually a guy called Leonard Fortune with his band “Racine Mapou de Azor” and he was quite possibly the biggest legend and greatest singer of Mizik Rasin.
A week later, back in New Zealand, I’d managed to track down a man called Paul Beaubrun of the Haitian band Zing Experience, part of a new generation of Racine artists pushing the sound beyond Haiti and to the world. The son of Theodore “Lolo” Beaubrun – lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans – Racine has been a part of Paul’s life all his life and speaking from his current base of New York.
“The movement began in the Seventies with all these guys like my Dad. It was sparked by Bob Marley and his message. The idea for Racine came from putting bass and putting guitar and trying to mix that with our traditional drums. When they started their band in 1978, their dream was to bring in a new type of music, the music that is us, the voodoo music, the music that united us back in 1804. It’s that music, that revolutionary music that my parents wanted to bring to unite the people again and make a change in the country.”
These early experimentations of Racine were set to a backdrop of tough social and political times within Haiti, a nation that had been through from the brutal regime of Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and the legacy of his Tonton Macoutes and were now living under the leadership of Papa Doc’s son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, who’s notoriously lavish lifestyle was sowing the seeds of discontent amongst the people who increasingly were looking for new ways of living and new music – other than the dominant (and Baby-Doc-approved) Compas and Mini-Jazz, which in no way attempted to lyrically reflect the reality that was Haiti at the time.
Change came in 1986, with Baby Doc fleeing into exile ending 28 years of Duvalier rule which sadly, rather than being the positive change people had been dreaming of for so long, ended up throwing Haiti into a whole new era of political instability. Political corruption, coup d’etat’s and assassination attempts were the norm, but it was during this time that roots music exploded and Racine thrived. By the beginning of the 1990’s, my taxi-discoveries such as RAM, Boukan Ginen and Boukman Eksperyans were pushing the genre further forward, blending elements of reggae, rock and funk with traditional voodoo and rara rhythms and penning lyrics that were reflecting the way society was thinking and feeling at the time.
One of Racine’s earliest crossover hit’s was Boukman Eksperyans’ “Ke’m Pa Sote” (I’m Not Afraid), which the band first debuted at Carnival in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince in 1990, with it’s subject matter speaking out about the interim government and it’s crooked leader General Propser Avril, as Paul Beaubrun remembers:
“After Baby Doc, there was Avril who came into power and with the military forces were trying to scare Haitians with their guns, and so Boukman responded ‘We’re not afraid’, these songs just exposed what the government was doing, and the people loved Boukman for this, for bringing the message.”
Pretty soon Boukman found themselves on a path to larger commercial success, signing to Island Record and even receiving a Grammy nomination in 1992 for their album “Kalfou Danjare”. But with the success came the ire of the government who more and more were seeing Racine acts like Boukman as a threat to their regime, and during this period it wasn’t uncommon for artists to be on the run, in exile or on the receiving end of assassination attempts.
“Oh Yes, yes! Many many many many times!” Paul laughs.
“I can remember it from when I was small, we’re running, I’m 5 years old and it was that time of military after Baby Doc’s regime went away, it was the time of Avril and you couldn’t say anything under the military regime. I can remember they sent military rounds to our house, they would tell my father that he shouldn’t go out at night, you know, constantly trying to scare Boukman into shutting up. It was crazy. And this continued throughout all of my life! In 1997, I was a teenager and I was already performing with my father’s band, and the government had sent a SWAT team to come and disconnect our gear so we couldn’t take the message to the people. Man, so many times, my father would have to leave the country, in 2004 even I had to leave the country. It’s been happening for years and years, during these times I wouldn’t see my father for months, he couldn’t tell us where he was because the government were really after him because of the ‘message’ again. These guys don’t like the truth to be out there!”
And he laughs again.
Not to say that all Racine music was political in nature, many artists used Racine to channel the energy of voodoo in a modern context and one of the greatest practitioners was this man who dominated my taxi rides a few weeks earlier, and was the main reason behind my quest in the first place, this man Azor. Easily one of the biggest names in Racine, certainly one of the greatest voices and sadly a legend that is now sorely missed with his passing in 2011. As soon as I mention his name to Paul, he instantly lights up:
“Oh my god, Azor is our hero! There is never going to be another Azor – his voice, the way he plays the drums, his lyrics, and he was the the most humble man, he was a good friend of our family and we miss him already. Since I was 7, 8 years old, I remember seeing Azor in his videos, he was always wearing this big colourful clothes. He was like a legend walking, you know, and he did so much for the music. He released an album in Japan, and they loved him there so much. He opened so many doors for Racine worldwide.”
I tell Paul about my experience in the taxi in New York and that’s the reason why we are talking now, and what an affect Azor’s music had on me. Paul laughed. “That’s the power of voodoo, man! He comes from that, from playing these voodoo ceremonies, and most of these songs that he sings are songs that belong to the Iwa’s – the spirits, the spirit gave these songs to the Haitian people.”
Now enjoy my Tonspur Podcast: Voodoo Taxi – and don’t forget: just one simple “what’s up man?” from the back seat will lead you on to all kinds of sonic and real world adventures.
Text: Nick Dwyer