Album Review: Various Artists – Tanbou Toujou Lou [Ostinato Records, June 2016]

Tanbou Toujou Lou (Drums Are Always Heavy), Ostinato Records’s anthology of hard to find Haitian musical gems from Haiti in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, is a wonderful album with songs that will please any listener. The anthology’s title points to drums, or tanbou, but this album seems to anthologise melody more than anything. It is an album that should also be listened to inquisitively: it reveals Haiti.

If one is not accustomed to Haitian music or language, there are two ways to listen to this album and both ways work well. The first is to let the songs’ sound speak to one’s soul, albeit in a foreign musical language. The second way is to imagine the context in which these songs were first composed and performed and to listen to them as the expression of that context. If listening to the musicianship in this album, it’s either the guitar, the singing voices, or the wind instruments that will interest most. The rhythms are amazing but it seems to be that the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were a great period for melody, and it registers well when is released through the guitar, a singing voice, or a wind instrument.

If you are listening to this album as the expression of a context, it would be crucial to think of two major moments in Haitian history: the end of the American occupation in 1934 and the rise of dark skinned black politicians to power in 1946. When the Americans left Haiti in 1934, it led to renewed belief in a Haitian self which manifested itself in Haitian “indigeniste” or nationalist music. The “indigeniste” group Jazz des Jeunes along with the “indigeniste” musician Raoul Guillaume (leading the Orchestre de la Radio National D’Haiti) are both featured on this anthology.

In 1946, when dark skinned black politicians, many of them modernists, came to power in Haiti, they eventually supported hedonist art which would surpass nationalist music. This hedonist art manifested itself musically as konpa and kadans rampa music, the combination of Latin American rhythms heard on the radio but also danced with Dominican prostitutes in Haiti, and the blossoming of the Mini-Jazz (named after short skirts of the 60’s) who are anthologized on this album. This album features songs by both the founder of konpa, Nemours Jean Baptiste, and of kadans rampa, Webert Sicot. It also features the very first mini-jazz group Les Shleu Shleu.

“Mesi Bon Dieu” is this album’s most impressive gem. The Orchestre de la Radio National D’Haiti, the group performing the Haitian folk classic, is no longer in existence. It is well arranged and the song is expressed with the right amount of confidence. The Orchestre’s leader Raoul Guillaume is one of the very best Haitian musicians of all time. “Rapadou” by Rodrigue Milien is an incredible listen and features a celestial voice that is known by too few people outside of Haiti: Rodrigue Milien’s. “Epoque Chaleur” is a standout and particularly great slow-paced number.

The electric guitar was introduced in Haiti as a foreign instrument. Haiti produces its own instruments and well to do Haitians have had a traditional affinity for the piano. This album collects the beginning of the mastery of the electric guitar in Haiti. The guitar, whether acoustic or electric, is an instrument that is beloved in Haitian culture and the songs that one hears show the beginnings of the instrument’s importance.

Tanbou Toujou Lou is a great effort and a superb album.