Headlines, North America

/ARTS WEEKLY/MUSIC: Haitian Big Band Fires Up U.S. East Coast

Jane Regan

NEW YORK, Dec 2 2003 (IPS) - "People are heating up. Festival season is here!"

Saxophonists and trumpeters swing their horns to the beat as the five singers in matching yellow jackets and green shirts swing microphones and hips, broad white smiles electrifying the room.

Drummers pound out the distinctive syncopated combination of African and Latin jazz rhythms. Men and women in tuxedos and long satin gowns twirl across the floor, faces radiant, eyes closed, perhaps remembering a dance under the starry Caribbean sky during a village festival in their native Haiti.

"It’s a tradition. A big rendezvous for Haitians . Everyone’s going to celebrate! They marry at festivals, they divorce at the festivals, and they make up too!"

Septentrional, Haiti’s oldest big band orchestra, and its "boule du feu" (ball of fire) rhythm – born of the Haitian "compas" merengue-influenced beat, Vodou ritual rhythms and Cuban flavour gleaned from radio shows – never fails to bring Haitians to the dance floors.

It even inspires followers around the country and worldwide to organise their vacations so they can attend the annual village festivals where their music reigns.


But now Haitians on the U.S. east coast have a chance to swing with Septent’s saxes once again.

Just as they have nearly every year since their first tour in 1966, Septentrional hit the road in November, this time to celebrate 55 years of music making. Thousands of Haitians – some living in the United States for 30 or 40 years – have turned out to join the party.

"Septentrional is like our child," says Garry Montestime, 52, a native of the band’s home, the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haitien.

"Septentrional makes us know who we are. The words, the music, the melody – all of it is fantastic."

Montestime, president of the New York-based CoSeptent volunteer group that helps manage the orchestra and organise its tours, was one of hundreds who danced until 3 a.m. in Queens recently. An electrician by profession, Montestime became a school bus driver so he would have more time for the orchestra.

"Septent’s music helps you develop. It helps you see the difference between good and evil," says Montestime, who also hosts a weekly radio show called ‘Détente Septentrional’.

"Since 1987 I have dedicated my life to Septentrional . I hope that they make it to 100 years, even if I don’t live to see it."

Founded in 1948 by "Maestro" Hulric Pierre-Louis and six other young musicians, the group has survived dictatorships, unrest, and the onslaught of foreign music by fiercely guarding its musical independence and carefully commenting on Haitian life, love and politics.

Septent’s musicians have penned over 350 songs – with titles like "The effects of liquor", "Learn to struggle" and "Mini-skirt" – in Haitian Creole and French.

"It is a major accomplishment," admitted the white-haired Pierre-Louis, the only original member still in the band and author of over 250 of Septent’s tunes.

"In Haiti we have so many problems, so many frustrations. If we can make it to our 55th anniversary, that’s a big thing."

Pierre-Louis pulled off an accomplishment, too. He recently made it to his 75th birthday – no small thing in a country where life expectancy is now under 50.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was among many to send birthday greetings to Pierre-Louis and the band last month, declaring in an official letter, "You have been a tremendous source of pride and inspiration to the people of Haiti and Haitian Americans of our great city".

"I remember our first visit here," mused Pierre-Louis in an interview, just before the ball. "We played at the Waldorf Astoria. The skyscrapers, the lights, it was a marvel."

That tour came two years after the group performed for dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Pierre-Louis says he was not a big Duvalier fan, but after members of the leader’s militia, the "Tonton Macoutes", harassed orchestra members, he decided the band should follow other groups and pen a propaganda piece.

"President for Life" was an overnight success and perhaps assured the band’s survival during those years.

Today, Septentrional navigates through Haiti’s complex politics, deteriorating economy and a musical environment where only a few big band orchestras have outlived rap, ragga and today’s slicker compas, as well as the invasion of U.S., French and Caribbean music.

"Septentrional’s music has no equal," said Wildred "Tony" Hyppolite as he spoke on Montestime’s radio show last weekend. "Now we are refining it."

Hyppolite, owner of a Montreal senior citizens home but known in Septent circles as the group’s historian, drove in for the Queens events.

Five years younger than the orchestra, he said he was "born into Septent" and has been a faithful follower since he can remember. He recently finished a 500-page manuscript documenting the orchestra’s history and music.

"Septentrional inspires a feeling of belonging," he said after the programme. "Once you start to follow the band, you feel like you are a member."

Like other "Septentologues", Hyppolite is sometimes concerned about the orchestra’s next 50 years, but he is also convinced that the support CoSeptent and others give will help it reach its centennial.

Recently, the ensemble has picked up younger members, and Pierre-Louis handed the musical direction of the group over to trumpeter Madsen Sylné.

"I don’t think we need to be concerned with attracting crowds of thousands," Hyppolite added. "What is important is that we preserve our identity."

"A group doesn’t reach 55 years by mistake. If Septentrional keeps on preaching the ‘evangelism of the good’, people will keep coming to hear them, because they play good music."

After the 1966 tour, a band member penned "Fanatik Mondyal", which means "Worldwide Fans."

"We arrived in New York, my friends, it was beautiful! Fans from all different countries adored us. Puertoricans, Jamaicans, Americans all said: Septentrional – We love you!"

The 55th anniversary tour has not yet produced a new song, but it has produced hundreds of ecstatic dancers and listeners, thrilled their "djaz" or "jazz" – as all Haitian musical groups are called – has touched down on U.S. soil.

Septentrional’s tour, which runs through Dec. 22, takes the orchestra to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Miami.

 
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