Interview: Q&A with Lakou Mizik – Rebuilding Haiti Notes After Notes (October 2021)

It goes without saying that there are very few places like Haiti. The country, which occupies the Western part of La Hispaniola island, is indeed one of the most exceptional, ill-fated and troubled in the world and the recent events have only corroborated this stark reality.

In spite of earthquakes, hurricanes, foreign interferences, political assassinations, coup d’états and sadly much, much more… Haitians keep on looking forward, rebuilding their lives over and over again, as well as their homeland, no matter what.

Music is one of the most natural as well as effective tools when it comes to patching together the soul and spirit of a population. An example is Lakou Mizik (which could be translated as ‘backyard music’), a nine-piece band which took shape in the aftermath of the 2010s earthquake which affected more than three million Haitians. 

Since then, the musicians have constantly infused new life into the quintessentially Haitian Rasin movement, employing their forward-looking musical approach and positive attitude to become messengers of hope for their people, both on their island and abroad.

In early August, the ensemble released Leave the Bones (via Anjunadeep), the third chapter of its career. The album is a collaborative project with the Grammy-winning musician and producer Joseph Ray (one third of the British drum’n’bass act Nero), and gives new strength to Lakou Mizik’s artistic vision opening up still uncharted territories to the band embracing electronic music. 

Leave the Bones, which is enjoying much hype all over the world, is also attracting DJs and producers willing to remix some of its episodes. The latest in the line of production is the one for ‘Kite Zo A‘ by Haitian DJ and producer Michael Brun, coming out today via Anjunadeep.

So, no wonder that we got in touch with the members of Lakou Mizik for a Q&A to learn more about their album, the recent past and near future of the “music from the backyard”.

You released your third album little less than two months ago, also celebrating ten years of Lakou Mizik. Can you briefly retrace the Lakou Mizik story for us? 

Lakou Mizik started pretty soon after the earthquake in 2010. At the time myself and Jonas Attis were doing what we could to help, which was playing music. So we would go to this camp behind my house and we would go with a guitar and a drum and we’d play for the people. You know, people had lost everything but when you lose everything you still have your culture and your music. So we would go – we’d play old songs, new songs, anything we could to help keep up their spirits. And I remember the day when our manager Zach Niles came to my studio – he was looking for my dad Boulo Valcourt but Jonas and I were there recording a band.

Zach had an idea to bring old Haitian songs back to life and share them with the world. You have to remember that at this time we had the earthquake and cholera and a bad political situation… Come to think of it, kind of like right now… and he said he wanted to show the world something else about Haiti. It was like we were meant to find each other at that time because it was kind of like a global version of what Jonas and I were doing locally. That’s really how it started. We recorded one song, Peze Kafe, and finally recorded our album and went on tour in the states. I say it like it was easy but it took a lot of time and effort to get there. 

It might be a delicate subject, also considering what occurred only a few weeks ago, but I feel that it’s crucial to learn what’s happening in Haiti from someone who lives there and has first-hand experience.

How do you feel about your country’s present days and how much the current happenings are influencing and affecting your musicians’ life?

Haiti is not in a good place at all right now. To put it nicely. Even before the earthquake and the president’s assassination the country was really suffering. There is no sense of safety or stability. Sometimes you wonder how we can ever come out of this mess. It’s tense just to go across town: there is violence and kidnapping, there’s no gas and bad inflation. As a musician it becomes almost impossible to make a living. And mind you, I haven’t even said anything about Covid because here that’s not what is on our minds. It’s “am I safe to go to the store?” it’s “if I play a gig, will it end early enough for me to get home ok?” You know we just think – if the president isn’t safe, how can we be safe? It’s sad. But I keep faith that we will come through this.

I’ve asked you about your musicians’ life, because in spite of everything, Haiti is still one of the liveliest and vibrant places for new music. How do musicians cope with the life conditions there and what can you tell us about Port-au-Prince’s music scene?

I mean music and culture is so huge for Haiti. I think it’s one of the things we hang onto and find pride and joy in. It’s like our history – we are so proud of that – but our present we aren’t so proud of and our future is hard to imagine so we put a lot onto these things we feel good about. The nightlife is pretty dead right now – but there is still music coming out and people still find time to celebrate and dance. Right now, Ogou from Leave the Bones is really popular in the country and I think it’s because it combines both our culture and pride in that with some of the modern sounds. It reminds us of who we are and who we can be.

Is there any musician/band from Haiti you’d like to suggest we listen to and discover?

Too many bands – great old ones like Boukman and RAM that you probably know, but John Steve Brunache is someone many people don’t know but he’s kind of our Bob Marley. Chouk Bwa Libète is really deep modern vodou music from Gonaives. There’s a big focus on pop and rap which I listen to but I’m not sure if foreigners will like it. I like DJ Gardy who mixes traditional music with electronic music. 

Since you launched Lakou Mizik, you have always been keen to respect your cultural roots spreading a positive depiction of Haiti and its people. When I receive your press releases, I often find it stated that, through your music, you aim to re-define or reshape the misconceptions that people abroad have about your country and its culture. 

Can you tell us a bit more about those misconceptions and, after ten year of Lakou Mizik, do you think you are succeeding in your “mission”?

I spent some years in the States when I was in high school so I know how people felt then about Haiti and Haitians. I can only imagine it’s worse now. If all you ever know about a place comes from the news, you see it all this one way which is of course going to be the worst image because that’s what news is interested in. But you just can’t take Haiti or any country only by what you see in the news. So through music and by meeting people and playing for people on tours, we are trying to give people another door to walk through to experience the country differently and I think we are succeeding. You can’t really measure it but when people see our show, which is really upbeat and high energy, they automatically feel a bit differently. They feel connected, and really we are all connected – music just helps to make those connections more clear.

We love Haiti, we really do. Despite all of its problems. Even people who have left the country, even those migrants in Texas, it’s not like they don’t want to be in their home country. I know they miss it. But leadership and the international community have mismanaged it so much that it’s hard to imagine making a life. We try to sing about the beautiful pieces, the things that are unique to who we are. It makes us feel better and gives us energy to keep going. 

We anticipated that you released your latest album less than two months ago. With the benefit of hindsight, how do you feel about Leave the Bones and how would you present it?

We didn’t know what to expect with this album and some of the songs were harder for us to understand what Joe was trying for, but we’ve really come to love it and are amazed with how he has been true to the music while also giving it a feeling that we never would have expected. We hope someday to be able to tour with the project but so much is unknown.

Considering your discography, it goes without saying that Leave the Bones is a pretty distinctive project. You have a new label and started to collaborate with a remarkable electronic producer like Joseph Ray. 

How was it to move in some sort of “uncharted waters” and blend your quintessential Afro-Caribbean sound with electronica and urban arrangements?

First of all the label has been so great. We feel really respected within this. We know that Joe has his fan base but everyone has really made us feel great about the collaboration. To be honest we mostly sang the songs for Joe the way we do them, but when he started showing us his ideas we loved it. It took a long time but somehow came out at the perfect time too. 

Can you briefly introduce us to some of the songs on the album? We know about the deep meanings behind your first two singles… is there any other track you are particularly excited about?

I really do love Ogou. I know it’s the single but I’m just so proud of how it came out. It is so different from other versions of the song and the meaning is just so powerful right now – Ogou – God of War and iron – you brought me here, so take care of me. I just think of the Haitian people today and how we are struggling so much everyday. It is emotional just thinking about it. I also love that the album really shows off Sanba Zao – he is a legend and it feels like his music and voice are only now getting the proper respect. 

How are people around you in Haiti reacting when they listen to your new songs? Is reinterpreting tradition adding more contemporary arrangements widely accepted or is there some scepticism?

The other day a friend of mine came over – he wanted to play this new song for me – as soon as he started it I knew it was Ogou. I was like “that’s me! And Lakou!” he didn’t even know – but people are really loving the mix. I don’t think it will always be received this way – but it’s so important for culture to always evolve.

Your singles are always accompanied by stunning videos. Do you consider them as extensions of your music and essential in conveying all its meanings, or are they somehow detached and independent from your songwriting?

Just like the music we are always trying to find new and positive ways to connect people to Haiti. The videos are just another angle that we can use. The footage is from a friend and former colleague of mine, a Canadian filmmaker named Kaveh Nabatian.

Regarding your songwriting and creativity process… How does Lakou Mizik’s music come to life? Can you briefly describe how you think about, shape and define your songs?

First of all there are three songwriters in the group. Normally we each bring songs to the band to see which ones everybody likes. The song writing gets collaborative only at the stage when someone wants to suggest a song to record and we work it out together. For every song Sanba Zao will find the perfect vodou rhythm to play on it. 

We always close our interview with a tricky question… How would you introduce your music to someone who has never listened to it before?

Our manager came up with a name like “vodou soul”, which is nice but maybe outdated for the new album Leave the Bones. But it will always be high energy, upbeat traditional music.


Photo ©: Michael Sipe Jr