“The Day We Fall Is Not The Day We Sink”: Cultural Repatriation in Haiti After the Quake

By Gage Averill, SEM President

In an odd twist of fate, my trip to Haiti in mid-January was postponed when the remote broadcast I was helping to set up from the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival for CIUT-FM in Toronto fell apart. I was also intending to do preliminary legwork for the repatriation of the Alan Lomax in Haiti 1936-37 box set. The repatriation effort had garnered the support of the Green Family Foundation, based in Miami, and had become a Clinton Global Fund project for 2010. But fate intervened, the ground shook, and devastation ensued.

In the agonizing weeks after January 12, amidst searches for friends, a long line of media interviews, commemorative events and the pure frantic busyness intended to counter the shock and anxiety, I had the chance to wonder what had become of the repatriation project. But each time this thought cropped up, I dismissed the project as trivial in comparison to the needs of the wounded and displaced.

Yet the sight of monuments in ruins, galleries and museums reduced to rubble along with the visual arts inside them, and the loss of so many theatres, clubs, and music venues – to say nothing of the images on CNN of traumatized Haitians trying to sing through the pain of un-anesthetized amputations – continued to provoke around issues of culture and cultural loss.

In the meantime, the Green Family Foundation set about making public service announcements with American and European celebrities (Sting, Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller, et al.) featuring the Lomax Haiti recordings as the soundtrack. The Green Foundation and Clinton Global sent sets out for fundraising events, for consciousness-raising, and for radio play in Haiti. Increasingly, these recordings from the 1930s became a media story of Haitian cultural richness and creativity, of cultural and political resilience, and of the need for cultural rebuilding in Haiti. And the Green Foundation began to rally the team that had worked on the Lomax project to get busy again on the Haiti repatriation project. And so we assembled together in Haiti in mid-April – old and new friends – to see what could be done.

All the pictures and news footage didn’t prepare me for the shock of non-recognition. Hillside neighborhoods in Canape-Vert no longer standing, fetid tent cities sprouting on every patch of vacant land, streets still impassable with rubble, and the town of Carrefour looking like Dresden after the bombing of WWII. Carrefour was an area where I played music with a band in an appliance store, studied drumming in a dense shantytown by the water’s edge, and attended scores of concerts in nightclubs, and now people were living in tin shacks on the median strip of the National Highway #2 with diesel trucks roaring by on the dirt road amidst piles of garbage and debris everywhere.

GageChurch

We held a listening party, panel, and concert on our first full day in Haiti at the Cafe des Arts in Petionville, attended by musicians, scholars, ambassadors, government ministers, and people interested in the arts. Our team on the ground in the capital had been filming dancers and singers who remembered the songs and dances that Lomax had recorded, and the films brought tears to some eyes. My old friend, musician and radio personality Joel Widmaier, spoke of the need to take culture seriously in the rebuilding of the nation, to nurture it as a resource for survival.

We headed out to the city of Leogane and its neighboring town of Carrefour Deux Forts, a coastal area to the West of Port-au-Prince, where a daughter of someone Lomax recorded had been located. PBS was filming our interviews with her and our visit to the former police station (now a rubble pile) where Alan Lomax had recorded rara bands in 1937. A center for rara (and Bizango and Kongo societies), Leogane and Carrefour des Forts had been a wonderful area in which to live while I was working with rara bands in the early 1990s. Now every third building was down, and it was believed that tens of thousands had perished in the area. Nevertheless, the markets were thriving and for those with homes intact, life appeared to have settled into a kind of fractured normalcy. A local Petwo and and a Rada Society held a dans (informal Vodou ceremony) for us lasting into the early nighttime. At the dans, we played a number of the songs from the region that had been recorded by Lomax, only to find many in the congregation singing along with the songs, another sign that this collection had resonance with a new generation. Interestingly, the night we left Leogane, we found out that one of our team may have located Francilia (last name unknown), a young singer that Alan had recorded, and whom I had made the subject of one of the albums in the box set. Now about 92 and a convert to Protestantism, she no longer sings Vodou songs. We hope to interview her on our next visit to Leogane and Carrefour Deux Forts.

The Lomax Haiti archive, which includes some 1,500 audio recordings and six films, was the earliest major set of recordings to have been made in Haiti and it was of a size that dwarfs other more recent projects. What does it mean to have all of this suddenly available in this next century/millennium? What might its impact be in a country struggling to sustain its population and rebuild after the worst natural disaster in modern human history. In conversations formal and informal with members of ISPAN (Institute de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National), with the FOKAL cultural center (The Fondation Connaissance et Liberte / Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libete (FOKAL), with the Rector of the Universite de Quisqueya, and with cultural activists, NGOs, and government ministries, there was an overwhelming sense that the intangible cultural assets of Haiti, as recorded and documented by generations of local and foreign ethnographers, needed to be made available to the Haitian people and brought home (in some form or other) from repositories abroad.

But the earthquake was a reminder of all of the hazards that face any repositories in Haiti. As in New Orleans, many important collections had been kept in individual homes. In recent decades, personal and institutional holdings had been subject to the everyday effects of a hot and alternately dry and wet climate, to hurricanes and flooding, to political violence and to crime, but now many lay crushed under roofs that had collapsed. The earthquake has given new urgency to the need to find a solution that combines easy access in Haiti with the safe storage of original audiovisual recordings in collections offshore. Digitalization has made this more feasible than ever.

However, to locate the many collections held abroad, and to coordinate their repatriation to a network of cultural centers, libraries, and universities in Haiti will involve sustained work over a decade or more. It became clear over the course of this last visit to Haiti that the repatriation of the Lomax recordings is a piece of a much larger puzzle that will allow greater access to the history of Haiti’s intangible cultural heritage. And access is about more than history – it’s about the creative and expressive processes that allow people to make sense of themselves and their world; it’s about being familiar enough with the past to use it as a resource for fashioning the future. A proverb used in a popular Haitian song came back to me in the days following the quake: “Jou-n tonbe se pa jou-n koala” (The day we fall is not the day we sink).

We have plans for at least another couple of visits to Haiti to continue to retrace Alan Lomax’s footsteps and to advance the repatriation project, but this will be only the start of a broader and more concerted effort to allow the far-flung diaspora of Haitian cultural assets to find their way home. an effort to allow the far-flung diaspora of Haitian cultural assets to find their way home.

Gage Averill, 2010 Reprinted by permission from SEM Newsletter, May 2010, published by the Society for Ethnomusicology

Originally posted: May 11, 2010