The connections between New Orleans and Haiti run deep. The threads that stitch the two together began unspooling during European colonization of the New World. Both colonies were controlled at times by the Spanish and French, and both were major destinations for the forced migration of enslaved Africans.
The bond was cemented by the Saint-Domingue revolution, which stretched from 1791 to 1804 and created Haiti, the first independent nation in Latin America and the second republic in the Americas. Thousands of people fled the nation, and in 1809, 10,000 French-speaking people arrived in New Orleans after an exile period in Cuba. This diaspora doubled the population of the fledgling American city, and the wave of immigration immediately impacted everything from food and music to art and architecture.
Artisans, musicians, cooks and tradespeople whose descendents bear names such as Dejean, Dejoie and Batiste helped shape the city, and their impact is immeasurable. It can be seen in the distinctive architecture of the Treme neighborhood where many of the gens de couleur, or "free people of color," settled after moving to New Orleans. Even the color schemes traditionally used to paint classic Creole cottages are reflected in the art of Haiti.
While much has been made of the connections between Native Americans and New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, the Indians' call-and-response vocals and the unique terms in songs like "Hey Pocky Way" are rooted in the music and language of the French-speaking Caribbean. The beadwork of what has been called the Uptown style of flat patches Mardi Gras Indians sew on their suits closely resemble costuming and craft traditions of Haiti.
Following the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, the associations between the two cultures were renewed. New Orleanians with still-raw memories of the destruction caused by the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina donated money and other types of aid.
Each year, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival highlights the city's connections with various cultures by featuring artists and musicians from different nations. This year the festival offers the largest celebration of Haitian culture since the earthquake. Master artisans from Haiti will demonstrate their crafts, and observers may notice the similarities between their sequin, papier-mache and metal work and that of New Orleans artists. The Haitian Pavilion is located at the back of the Congo Square viewing area. There also will be several parades of Haitian groups that bear a distinct resemblance to the second-line parading traditions of the Crescent City.
The first weekend (April 29-May 1) of Jazz Fest features "Haiti and New Orleans: Cultural Crossroads," a series of panel discussions about the connections between Carnival, parading, architecture, beadwork and Vodou.
Musical guests from Haiti will perform on several different stages during both weekends. Opening day features hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, one of the most famous Haitian performers in the world. At age 9, Jean moved with his family to New Jersey. His work with The Fugees earned him international acclaim and in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, he leveraged his fame to run unsuccessfully for president of Haiti.
Other performers include veteran musicians from Haiti as well as musicians from the Haitian-American community in New York. Topping the list is Boukman Eksperyans, whose debut album was nominated for a Grammy. The group takes part of its name from the slave who initiated the revolution in Haiti. During political turmoil in the early 1990s, some of its protest songs became anti-government anthems and the group spent several years living in exile. It combines African and Caribbean rhythms, call and response vocals, rock and reggae. Most songs are in the Haitian French-Creole patois, but the group's high-energy grooves translate into any language.
Ti-Coca, aka David Mettelus, performs several times during the first two days of the festival, and he presents another side of Haitian music. He is best described as a troubadour in the singer/songwriter tradition. He typically performs acoustically with simple instrumentation, and his rhythms reflect the musical relationship between Haiti and Cuba.
The second weekend (May 5-8) features Tabou Combo, which plays konpa, the national music of Haiti. Tabou Combo is a 12-piece big band featuring a horn section that plays highly infectious dance music. The style is connected to meringue, which originated in the Dominican Republic — the Spanish-speaking nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
RAM represents yet another type of Haitian music. It is a "mizik rasin" — or roots music — band whose style mixes elements of Haitian folk music rooted in Vodou religious rituals with more modern sounds. RAM also has a drum group, which will parade as well as perform at several Vodou ceremonies in the Haitian pavilion.
Stage performances by Haitian Bands at Jazz Fest's First Weekend
5:30 p.m. Friday, April 29, Congo Square Stage
Haitian-New Orleans Connection with Emeline Michel, Jean Montes and Dr. Michael White
5:45 p.m. Friday, April 29, Peoples Health Economy Hall Tent
Ti-Coca and Wanga-Neges
12:35 p.m. Friday, April 29, Lagniappe Stage
3:10 p.m. Friday, April 29, Jazz & Heritage Stage
12:10 p.m. Saturday, April 30, Blues Tent
2 p.m. Saturday, April 30, Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage
5:50 p.m. Saturday, April 30; Jazz & Heritage Stage
3:05 p.m. Sunday, May 1, Jazz & Heritage Stage
1:35 p.m. Sunday, May 1, Congo Square Stage