Music is at the core of Haiti’s sense of identity, and musicians have always played an important role in society, both in documenting the country’s history and helping to shape its path forward. Today, a young generation of artists is keeping this tradition alive, narrating the world they live in through music that is made in their neighborhoods, villages and post-earthquake camps. Lakou Mizik brings together these musical generations in celebration of the cultural continuum while using Haiti’s deep well of creative strength to shine a positive light on this tragically misrepresented country.
The idea for the band was hatched in 2010 on a hot November night in Port-au-Prince. Haiti was still reeling from the earthquake, a cholera epidemic was raging, and a political crisis filled the streets with enough tire burning ferocity to close the international airport. Steeve Valcourt, a guitarist and singer whose father is one of the country’s iconic musicians, singer Jonas Attis and American producer Zach Niles met in Valcourt’s muggy basement studio and agreed that Haiti’s music and culture could serve as an antidote to the flood of negativity.
Niles, who ten years previously was part of the documentary film and management team that introduced Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to the world, had traveled to Haiti to explore ways in which music could help play a role in recovery and empowering social change. According to Niles, “I always wanted to use music and story of musicians to create a deeper connection to the country than either the one-note negative press or the falsified hope-and-inspiration NGO stories that get pushed to the public.” Niles, Valcourt and Attis assembled an exceptional lineup, creating their own musical A-Team, a powerhouse collective of singers, rara horn players, drummers, guitarists and even an accordionist.
Over the next few years, the band honed their electrifying live show, presenting hours long concerts that blended the soulful spirit of a church revival, the social engagement of a political rally and the trance-inducing intoxication of a vodou ritual. Finally, after building a devoted local fan base, the band headed to the Artists Institute in Jacmel, home to a beautiful new recording studio and music school built by the We Are the World Foundation to help develop Haiti’s music industry.
Two veteran music producers joined the group to help create their debut album: Chris Velan, a Montreal singer-songwriter and producer responsible for producing two albums for Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, and British producer Iestyn Polson, famed for his work with David Gray, David Bowie, Patti Smith and others.
The resulting album, Wa Di Yo, reflected the African, French, Caribbean and U.S. influences that collide in Haiti. The spirit-stirring vodou rhythms and call-and-response vocals were supported by the French café lilt of the accordion. Intricate bass lines and interlocking guitar riffs mesh mesmerizingly with the joyful polyrhythmic hocketing of rara horns. These powerful layers were topped by sing-along melodies with inspiring, socially conscious lyrics. The end result was a soulful stew of deeply danceable grooves that feels strangely familiar yet intensely new — and 100% Haitian.
Wa Di Yo was released by Cumbancha on April 1st, 2016 and both the album and the band’s live shows earned instant praise. After their appearance at the prestigious globalFest event that year, the New York Times wrote, “Lakou Mizik, formed after the devastating Haitian earthquakes of 2010, is a genial cross-generational coalition along the lines of the Buena Vista Social Club. Its songs, some of which are topical, draw on the rhythms and incantations of voodoo, the trumpeting of rara carnival music and hearty call-and-response vocal harmonies on their way to galloping, exultant dance grooves.” The band went on to perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and other important venues. In 2019, influential UK magazine Songlines included Wa Di Yo in their list of the best world music releases of the past five years.
The seed for Lakou Mizik’s second album, HaitiaNola, was planted in 2017 when the band was invited to play the legendary New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was an eye-opening pilgrimage to the mythical music city and the band members immediately felt a connection. The music, the food, the architecture all reminded them of home. To this day, Haitian influences can be felt in the music of New Orleans. From the rhythms of the Mardi Gras parades to the swampy grooves of funk, echoes of this Haitian connection can still be heard in the sounds of the city. It can also be felt in the food, language, spirituality and so much more. One sunny day, when the musicians of Lakou Mizik found themselves walking down Frenchmen Street, they hatched the idea for HaitiaNola (Haiti & NOLA & Hispaniola = HaitiaNola).
A year later Lakou Mizik was invited back to Jazz Fest for the second time (a rare honor) but this time the focus was on the album and musical collaborations. New Orleans producer Eric Heigle, fresh off a GRAMMY win with his band Lost Bayou Ramblers and a role in the production of indie rock supergroup Arcade Fire’s latest album, signed on to produce the project. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, longtime advocates of Haitian culture, offered to let the band use their private recording studio. Ben Jaffe, the director of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a New Orleans institution, gave Lakou Mizik additional time at their recording studio.
Even amidst the bustle of Jazz Fest, many in the New Orleans music community embraced the project and graciously made time in their hectic schedules to come jam with Lakou Mizik. The legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band added their timeless touch; master pianist Jon Cleary tickled New Orleans-style riffs over the band’s Haitian Vodou prayers; Lost Bayou Ramblers added heavy Cajun grit; Haitian-American singer songwriter Leyla McCalla brought spine-tingling cello playing; guitar maestro Raja Kassis (Antibalas)
sprinkled his six-string magic all over the tracks; and The Soul Rebels brass band blew the roof off the studio. Soon after the NOLA sessions, Eric Heigle and Jon Cleary traveled to Haiti to record with Lakou Mizik at the Artists Institute in Jacmel. Over the next few months additional sessions allowed for more guests to jump in. Iconic figures Cyril Neville, Trombone Shorty and Anders Osborne, rising star Tarriona “Tank” Ball (Tank and the Bangas), NOLA institution King James (from the Special Men), even Win & Régine from Arcade Fire helped create the unique, culture-melding sound of this album.
The result of this collaborative gumbo is the album HaitiaNola, a sweaty celebration that manages to connect not only the rhythms and sounds of the two places but also the gritty energy, the unmistakable mysticism and the carefree Mardi Gras incantation of laissez les bon temps roulez (let the good times roll) that persists in both countries. In Haitian Kreyòl the word lakou carries multiple meanings. It can mean the backyard, a gathering place where people come to sing and dance, to debate or share a meal. It also means “home” or “where you are from,” which in Haiti is a place filled by the ancestral spirits of all the others that were born there. With HaitiaNola, Lakou Mizik expands their lakou, to take in their cultural cousins and actual descendants in New Orleans. With music to lift them up, these two places have pushed through unimaginable tragedy in recent years. HaitiaNola celebrates this defiantly joyous spirit and the rhythmic roots that have connected them for more than two centuries.