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root salad Chouk Bwa Libète

International ambassadors for the roots of Haitian music. Tony Montague takes a listen.

dancers from Gonaïves, some three hours north of Port-au-Prince who came together five years ago; a name with a symbolic image that’s right at the heart of the coat of arms on the flag of Haiti – a palm-tree growing out of a drum and crowned by a cap of liberty. It stands for their nation, their history, and their beliefs.


Vodou gave the black slaves of France’s richest colony the enduring strength and unity to rise up in 1791 and fight a brutal war for thirteen years, until Haiti became the world’s first black republic.

If that seems dark and remote, it isn’t for the members of Chouk Bwa (as the group has recently restyled itself for simplic- ity). They’re a back-to-basics mizik rasin Haitian roots outfit – call-and-response voic- es, drums, percussion, and dance – that draws direct inspiration from the many struggles, past and present, of their people. The repertoire is a mix of traditional vodou chants or invocations and new songs in that musical language, written by Chouk Bwa’s founder and lead singer Sanbaton Dorvil.

“I formed Chouk Bwa on the commemo- ration day of the death of Toussaint Louver- ture [who led the Haitian slave army], inspired by his words: ‘you may cut down the trunk of the tree of liberty but it will grow back from its roots’. We consider ourselves the roots of that tree. And each of us brought their own roots to the group. I called on all the initiates of vodou that I knew, and chose six to be with me. Our aim was to speak up for the rights of vodouisants [vodou-practition- ers] and the destiny of Haitians.”

Just to the north of Gonaïves is ‘the vodou triangle’, with three important ‘lak- ous’ or temples in one area. “The drums there are from the Kongo, Dahomey and Nago [vodou rites]. Each has its own drums, and rhythms. Slaves from many African tribes came to Haiti and brought with them their rites. In Chouk Bwa we use the Kongo, Dahomey and Nago drums together. You can also play for other rites with them. And there’s a bell – the ougan – that’s struck to give the ‘kick’.“

In addition to Sanbaton, Chouk Bwa has four drummers, and two female dancers Malune Prévaly and Edele Joseph whose fluid and hypnotic movements are unchore- ographed. Says Edele: “I grew up with the dances – in Gonaïves and at the carnaval in my town – from when I was very small. I

didn’t learn them. Sanba and I came from the same neighbourhood, and know each other really well. All of us are professionals who played and danced for the lakous. What we do in the group is very natural, very original, and very heart-to-heart.”

Chouk Bwa quickly caught the ear and imagination of Brussels-based musician Michael Wolteche. “He came to Haiti twice to see us,” says Sanba, “and I said he should be our manager, even though he had no experience in that work. Michael invited us to Europe, and so things started up.”

“We needed an album,” says Wolteche, who produced Chouk Bwa’s extraordinary debut Se Nou Ki La! “I felt strongly it had to be made in a setting in accord with the strengths of the group. So we decided to make it in the village of the drum-maker – where there’d be the most spirit and we’d be most comfortable. We recorded in the open in Petite Rivière Bayonnais, which has no electricity or running water but all these people around who brought their own vibrations. We were there a week, working from six in the morning to midnight, trying to find the best time of day to give each song its colour and make it ring out.”

The result is a recording sometimes a bit rough in grain but always rich in spirit.

One short track features the song of Véronèse, the drum-maker’s twelve-year- old daughter. “At one point I heard unbe- lievable music coming from the little house where they do the washing-up. I said to my sound engineer Xavier [Yeriès] ‘Quick, quick, record it’.” Other sounds made by vil- lagers, chicks, and birds fill the spaces of a wonderfully evocative recording.

houk Bwa performed at WOMEX in Budapest two years ago, and at Womad in Charlton Park in 2016. The group are currently complet- ing a second album that takes them to a different kind of village and community.

C “It’s based on new material from Chouk

Bwa,” says Wolteche, “still with vodou rhythms but with two musicians from the experimental, underground scene here [Brussels] who are fascinated by dub and dance-hall and got hooked on Chouk Bwa’s music. We did an amazing show with them. I took the tape we made of it to WOMEX, and the reaction was unanimously very posi- tive. No computers are involved, just old- style synthesisers, so the rhythms and feel of Chouk Bwa are preserved – we aren’t about to box in the representatives of those who fought to free Haiti.” F

houk Bwa Libète means ‘Root of the Tree of Liberty’ in Haitian cre- ole. It’s the name of a group of seven vodou musicians and

19 f

Photo: Thomas Freteur

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