Saint Domingue was the name of Haiti as a French colony; Cap-Français was the Paris of the Antilles of Saint Domingue. Its main attraction was its Comédie du Cap, a large theater with 1,500 seats, founded in 1740. There the opera was in great demand. Gluck and Rousseau were both loved. France had just experienced a beautiful era for music through the court of Louis XIV, with the work of musicians like Jean-Baptiste Lully. From 1785, music criticism appeared in Haitian newspapers, especially in the Santo Domingo Gazette. The first opera in Creole, Jeannot and Thérèse—Based on that of Rousseau The Village Soothsayer– was composed and performed in 1785. At first, the Opera only admitted whites, but eventually became popular as a separate institution. The opera has developed local stars, such as singer Minette, whose life is fictionalized in Marie Vieux Chauvet’s novel Dance on the volcano.
In 1791, the Haitian revolution, first to abolish slavery and then for the independence of Haiti, began. Shortly after the abolition of slavery, Toussaint Louverture, former slave and leader of the struggle for the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue, rebuilt the theater at Cap-Français, burnt down by the revolutionaries. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, once a slave, who led Haiti to its independence, was a great protector of opera. With houses and plantations on fire during the revolution, he did all he could to protect the theaters of the then colony. In other words, Haitian history begins with a deep appreciation for classical music.
During the Haitian Revolution, white artists fled Haiti, especially to New Orleans, where they staged the first French-language opera. Opera in Haiti, especially with the popularity of Minette, became dominated by black artists. Thus began the long tradition of classical music in Haiti which continues today.
Nathalie Joachim’s latest album, Fanm D’ayiti, is in this line. His family is from Les Cayes, which had an opera house before the Haitian revolution. Flute player, singer and songwriter trained in Julliard (although she does not consider herself a classical musician), her ability to compose and perform in a classical style is undeniable. In tandem with the Spektral Quartet, she explores folk songs, mostly by unknown artists, that Haitian women have performed.
Nathalie considers her music of broad inspiration, notably of Erykah Badu and Björk. It organizes acoustic and electronic sound. “Legba Na Console”, his haunting arrangement of a Haitian voodoo song, is certainly an example of his talent for this. A generally upbeat devotional song, close in the spirit of early rock and roll, it is made postmodern and meditative thanks to the violin and electronics.
Classical music is part of Haiti’s “Gbe”. Gbe is Fon for the world (the Fon people are an ethnic tribe of the Gbe, found in Benin, Nigeria and Togo), and a root of voodoo words such as “Damballah” (Dan-Gbe-Allah), which means serpent protector of the world that Allah has created. Haitian culture is above all a culture of devotion, similar to the bhakti culture. Candle in hand, a Haitian devotes himself to and is possessed by the world as it is, a world whose beauty is undeniable in classical music.
After Dessalines, Henri Christophe, King of Haiti, founded a philharmonic, an academy of music, and patronized the opera. Haiti had a president who was also a classical musician, Louis Borno. He is known for his Hymn of the Centenary. Dr Rosalvo Bobo, anti-imperialist revolutionary, notably composed The Artibonitian, a patriotic hymn to L’Artibonite, the basket of rice from Haiti, appreciated for the bravery of its women, its unique cuisine, and home to the most prestigious voodoo temples and the Artibonite River, so loved by Haitians who are believed to be a deity.
Classical music in Haiti reached its first golden age in the early 1900s. Claude Dauphin, musicologist and specialist in Haitian music, retains at the Société de Recherche et de Diffusion de la Musique Haitienne many formerly lost compositions from this period. Golden age. The great philharmonic was the Philharmonie de Cap Haitien, based in the city that was once called Cap-Français, now Cap-Haitien. The album of pianist Célimène Daudet Haiti, My Love, presents the compositions of three of the great musicians of this golden age, Ludovic Lamothe, Edmond Saintonge and Justin Elie. Daudet interprets these compositions without fail. As I listened, I thought of my piano teacher Isner Champagne, who before retiring to teach piano was one of Papa Doc’s ambassadors in Germany. I remember he wanted to teach me Beethoven before learning Lamothe. Piano music, especially hymns and meringues, a form of music created by the Haitian military after the revolution, was particularly popular during this early golden age and before the popularity of acoustic guitars.
The second golden age took place between the middle and the end of the 20th century. Sonatas and cantatas became popular around this time. Some musicians are still living. Notable composers of the period are Werner Jaegerhuber, Iphares Blain and Carmen Brouard. It was the height of classical guitar. Amos Coulanges and Frantz Casseus are the most revered classical guitar musicians in a culture that has attracted hundreds of people to study the works of Francisco Tárrega, a Spanish composer considered a “father of classical guitar music”, and whose compositions were, and still are, essential. learns for aspiring classical musicians. Micheline Laudun Denis and Nicole Saint Victor are respectively the pianist and the soprano par excellence of the time. École Sainte-Trinité was founded at this time and continues to train generations of young Haitians.
A new golden age of Haitian classical music is coming soon, as beautiful as the previous ones. Haitians are a people possessed by the will to be enlightened and resplendent. In voodoo, one is initiated to become this self, aware of the Holy Sun and the laws that govern this world. This self-control, in the face of despotism, capitalism, racism, sexism, etc., is reinforced by the power of the moon in Haitian culture. Classical musicians are possessed, and it is they, along with voodoo musicians, who, as composers, performers and teachers, defined the often unreached ideals of Haitian music. Nevertheless, they choose to continue the tradition because it is inherent in their being. It was by embracing both classical and voodoo music that the popular genre Kompa of Haiti was formed. It is by denying that Haitian music is a monolith, to quote Nathalie Joachim, that we can begin to appreciate Haitian music and Haiti.