Nou La (“We’re Here”) is the first album by Vo-Duo, a group recently formed by guitarist Monvelyno Alexis and percussionist Markus Schwartz in Brooklyn, NY. The pair extends the legacy of the Haitian Mizik Rasin (roots music) and Sanba (singer/poet) movements, which developed in the early 1980s in Port-au-Prince, into the contemporary New York City world/jazz scene. The nine-song record features original compositions and arrangements from the Vodou (traditional Afro-Haitian religion/spiritual expression incorporating song, drum and dance) repertoire pared down to a duo format for voice, drums, and guitar. The album brings this localized style to New York, arguably the heart of the Haitian jazz scene, harmonizing traces of both worlds and pushing the boundary of roots music for wide audiences.
The clever name of the group captures the thematic content of Nou La, which begins with the Alexis’ opening acapella composition “Bonjou.” Vo-Duo says “bonjou” with a salute to the sacred Asoto drum, then to the lwa-s (spirits), and finally to all listeners, roping them into the spiritual realm as well. Once initiated, listeners experience a deeply personal album with complex musicality. On the group’s arrangement of Sanba Zao’s “Frelele” (The Struggle), Schwartz lays down a Yanvalou rhythm, interwoven with a spicy Kongo/Manbo pattern from Lakou Soukri in Gonaives. The coda features both artists employing tanbou a bouch, a style of audibly “scatting” the onomatopoeic tones of the drums. On the folk standard “Pale Mal” (Bad Talk), Alexis’ jazzy minor chord progressions are warmed with a tasteful amount of reverb and reveal the guitarist’s deep connection to the legendary song. Over a restrained Mayi rhythm, they create sweet vocal harmonies throughout, capturing the emotion of being roped into the gossip or “pale mal” of others, “mwen nan mitan yo” (“I’m stuck in the middle of it all”).
Alexis uses his platform as songwriter and performer to express the intimate and complex connection that many Haitians have with Vodou, an integral part of their daily lives and overall creative output. He is a poet in the Sanba tradition, which he experienced firsthand with Louis Lesly Marcelin (Sanba Zao) in his Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Carrefour-Feuilles. He learned the flute in high school, as well as folkloric arts and history at l’Ecole Nationale des Arts (ENARTS) and guitar at the Berklee College of Music. Schwartz, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, is a well-regarded percussionist on the Haitian music scene. He studied Haitian drumming with Jean-Raymond Giglio of the influential Rasin group Foula, and then traveled extensively to Haiti, learning in many lakou-s (Vodou communities) throughout the island. Stylistically, his drum-set up includes Haitian tambou (traditional hand drum), cajon (a hollow, boxlike instrument of Peruvian origin), bells, tambourine, and ride/crash cymbals. The resulting “hybrid” sound is distinctively his own, with the occasional live addition of electronics, as well as some other bells and whistles (literally).
Nou La is an important album by two musicians fluent in Haitian folkloric music who realized its potential after meeting in NYC’s jazz scene. Listeners are assured that this stripped-down, well-mastered jazzy record by two of today’s best Haitian jazz musicians accomplishes its goal of extending the roots traditions in the Tenth Department*.
*Haitian term for the Haitian diaspora population (living abroad)
- Kevin Mason, (originally published in the Haitian Studies Association Newsletter)