Interview: Mark Mulholland – Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra (May 2016)

How does one successfully blend the sounds and instruments of several cultures in order to produce something new? It’s a question that has puzzled many great musicians from Gilberto Gil to the Rolling Stones. What we do know is that it includes putting together a great band and the art of listening attentively to the music of others. When Nigerian legend Tony Allen, a phenomenal drummer and once musical director of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70, a major player in the founding of Afrobeat, goes to Haiti and releases an album along with the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra, one can be sure that not only was a phenomenal band put together but that the compositions will be rooted in an actual appreciation of Haitian music.

Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra is exactly that and the result is wonderful. We spoke to AfroHaitian Experimental Orchestra’s guitarist, Mark Mulholland,  about the project, and would certainly recommend that our readers explore their self titled debut album (which will be released tomorrow by Glitterbeat) to experience what blending Afrobeat and Haitian percussion can become.

I’d like to first of all commend you on a very enjoyable album. My first question has to do with the fact that this is an orchestral album, and with Haiti having had a long history of orchestral music. We can even add that Haiti has an orchestral culture given that legendary groups like Orchestre Septentrional and Orchestre Tropicana are both thriving and persevering despite the cost of the upkeep. According to Haitian historian Jean Fouchard, the liberator of Haiti General Jean Jacques Dessalines would often be accompanied by an orchestra of 40 musicians. So what made you choose to become an orchestra?

Thanks a lot! I’m glad you enjoyed the album. We didn’t specifically set out to be an orchestra. It was quite a spontaneous interaction between a bunch of different musicians, and the name came later. There were a lot of musicians, which necessitated a certain amount of arrangement between the different sections; drums, percussion, vocals, melody instruments and so on, which gave us the idea of using the term orchestra, but at the same time it was very loose, with a lot of improvisation, hence combining it with ‘experimental’.”

How did you put this Orchestra together?

The project was put together for a performance on the Champ de Mars, which is the main square of Port-au-Prince, for the Fête de la Musique on June 21st 2014. We had 5 days to put a repertoire together before the gig, which was broadcast live on national television.”

How did the album come to be conceptualised?

The idea was to invite Tony Allen to Haiti, to explore the possibility of combining the rhythms of Afro-beat, which he had created with Fela Kuti in his native Nigeria in the 1960’s and 70s, with the rich traditions of Haitian percussion. With the help of Sanba Zao, one of the foremost percussionists in the country, and Erol Josué, the singer and Director of the Haitian National Bureau of Ethnology, we brought together a group of tambourineurs and singers from different local bands. A chance meeting in Paris with Jean-Philippe Dary, a keyboard player and bassist who had played with Tony for many years before leaving to concentrate on non-musical projects, provided one of the key elements, bringing the solid bass guitar and musical direction needed to hold everything together, and we completed the line-up with me on electric guitar and the French musician Olaf Hund on keyboards and electronica. The aim was to combine Afro-beat with traditional Haitian percussion, add some electronic elements and psychedelic guitar, and mix it all up and see what came out.”

There’s a Haitian poet Jean Richard Laforest who once wrote that the revolution that will change Haiti will be danced as a Yanvalou. What went into your song ‘Yanvalou’? How does the song intend to affect its listener?

I don’t think we gave any particular consideration to what effect it should have on the listener, but dancing would seem to me to be an appropriate response.”

‘Poze’ is another great song on the album. What was the inspiration for it?

“‘Poze’ started as a collaboration between Olaf Hund and Erol Josué, so I’m not sure what was the initial inspiration, you’d have to ask Erol or Olaf. As far as my contribution is concerned, I did the guitar part after I moved from Haiti to Mali, so there’s definitely a desert blues influence in there too.”

How do the lyrics of the songs correspond to the instrumentation on the album?

Some of the lyrics are from Haitian folk songs or Voudou chants, some are written by Sanba Zao, and some are improvised by Zikiki or Marc-Harold Pierre. Some of the traditional songs have a strong connection with traditional percussion and Voudou rhythms, other songs we started with an afro-beat groove from Tony and then found suitable vocals to go over them, and a couple started as collaborations between Erol and Olaf or myself, and then Tony added drums.”

What do you mean by Afro-Haitian in the name of the band?

As mentioned earlier, the whole project started with the idea of combining afro-beat, which Tony Allen initiated with Fela Kuti in Lagos in the ‘60s, with the rich traditions of Haitian percussion.”

How is the situation in Haiti today, from both a cultural and musical perspective? Is there a reason why there are more new bands and projects becoming popular and distributed abroad?

I left Haiti almost 2 years ago, so I’m not best placed to talk about the situation today. Certainly the political situation is complicated to say the least, and there is a lot of poverty. However, the culture is incredibly rich and varied. The reason that there are new bands and projects becoming popular internationally is that there are lots of great musicians in Haiti, and there are many more to discover, as well as countless world-class painters, poets, playwrights and novelists.”

Your first album is due for release in just over a month, but have you already thought about the future of the project? Are there any plans to travel, tour and play together?

There are no immediate plans to tour, because logistically it’s complicated and everyone is spread around different continents. There is a lot of expense involved in putting a lot of people on the road, but if the album gets good reactions, hopefully some possibilities might develop that would permit us to put together a version of the project that could travel.”