vrijdag 1 februari 2019

Haitian music

I read quite a lot about the country Haiti during parts of my life. This was for a period also in a professional context, as I worked, for years, for an academic, anthropological library, specialized in the Caribbean.


Haiti’s history is of course dramatic, both in horrors and grandeur. The successful slave revolt resulting in an independent Black nation in 1804. The preceding slave regime, which was known as exceptionally cruel and intense. I read that there were relatively high numbers of continuous imports of enslaved Africans, especially since the Late 17th, and throughout in the 18th c., certainly matching the total figures for Cuba or Jamaica. This was due to a specialized focus on sugar cultivation through plantation slavery, as it developed within the French colonial economic system. Even in spite of the mountainous terrain of the part of Hispaniola Haiti is on. This sugar plantation slavery specialization was such, that St Domingue, as Haiti was known during French colonialism, became known as a “slave society”, similar to Jamaica, while Cuba rather was seen as a “society with slaves”; i.e. less dominantly focused on plantation slavery, only in certain parts of Cuba (Matanzas in the West, a bit around Santiago de Cuba, in South East Cuba).

Enslaved Africans in French St Domingue (now Haiti) had to work in a harsh, demanding system related to the profitability of produced sugar. It was the case, that St Domingue became one of the main producers of this cane sugar at its peak in the 18th c., in the region and globally, and the French colonists wanted to maintain this profitability. This led to the increased overworking of the enslaved population and resulting in higher death tolls, shorter lives, and thus the need for continuous imports of enslaved people, directly from Africa, even at a time when in other colonies in the Americas the colonists could more and more largely manage with locally born African slaves.

This, even relatively, harsh, deathly slave regime in St Domingue almost inevitably led to slave revolts. Not unique in Caribbean or American history, but eventually becoming a more concerted, colony-wide rebellion against White colonizers, and an independent country, renamed Haiti (a former Arawak name) in 1804. The interesting historical figure, a definite hero, Toussaint Louverture played an important role in all this. It is said, though, that Louverture at first wanted just to abolish slavery, and not per se become independent from France.

AFTER 1804

Then there is the troubled history since 1804. Of course France not, but neither other European countries, recognized this independence. They were all, after all, deeply involved in colonialism and slavery of Africans in their colonies.

Quite cynically, France demanded of the new country Haiti a large sum of “indemnification” money for former slave-owners end lost profits, in return for this formal recognition, to which Haiti, even if poor, tried to oblige. Scandalous, of course: like having to say sorry to a rapist for not being able to rape you anymore. This large sum (the word “debt” is of course not appropriate) to pay to France of course kept Haiti economically backward, being known today even as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere”.

Then there was the political history, including of the Duvalier (father and son) dictatorships between 1957 and 1986, to which much academic literature was devoted. As part of that same scholarly literature, I also read quite a lot about the Vodou spiritual beliefs, and its place in Haitian culture, historically and presently, vis-à-vis Catholicism.

Due to the mentioned history, Haiti is a racially predominantly “Black” country – with a mainly African-descended population - , but with a sizable, or at least disproportionally influential, “brown” population, with some European blood, and related to that generally more wealth and power. Not unlike the situation in Jamaica, where there are also relatively privileged (partly European) “browns”, compared to those of a darker hue.

I found this all very interesting, and having to read about this (I made for the library catalogue even “summaries” of publications for a period) was not bad, for a job. Plus I always liked to learn. There are worse jobs imaginable, let’s say. Some of these I sadly had to encounter later.

I am a trained Librarian, but the work has been decreasing for decades in the Library field, so also for me.


Either way, I have read a lot about Haiti for over 10 years. I learned a lot. Looking back, though, I can recall that some aspects of the Haitian reality and history seemed to get overall more attention in the main scholarly literature on Haiti (often published at university presses in the US, by the way). The political history of the 20th c. and Early 21st c. got a lot of attention (Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier dictatorships, and what followed), the slave revolt and independence (1804) and aftermath, the history of slavery, and Vodou beliefs as important cultural force among the Haitian populace.

Other aspects or phenomena got in comparison less attention, also compared to the literature on other Caribbean islands. One of these is music: both traditional and popular Haitian music.

I noticed this, because I am a music lover, and have by now a long-time interest for both Jamaican music, I am a Reggae fan since my teens, as well as Cuban and Afro-Cuban music. I even went to Cuba several times, and also to Jamaica a few times. It is safe to say that Jamaican music and Cuban music shaped my musical tastes, and even my life. When I started to play more and more percussion instruments about 8 years ago, I started partly with Afro-Cuban patterns, alongside some rhythms directly from Africa. I also listened to percussion in Reggae, or Afro-Jamaican traditions like Kumina. Further, I also let some Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Puerto Rican, Afro-Colombian, or even Spanish Flamenco and Jota influences (from my maternal, Spanish side) slip in.

At times I studied Haitian percussive forms as well, such as the Vodou-derived Yanvalou rhythm patterns, for my composition Apwoksimasyon (Haitian Creole for “approximation”). I remember the bell pattern in it was quite complex and difficult to play, seeing that as a nice educational challenge at that time..

Jamaican and Cuban music remained relatively overall larger influences on me, though.

Nonetheless strange that I got to know relatively less about nearby Haitian music, almost neighbouring Cuba and Jamaica. I travelled several times to Eastern Cuba, where there are some historical Haitian musical/cultural influences, e.g. those known as Tumba Francesa traditions. I heard some of it.

A question that I therefore am going to explore in this post is this one: part of the same African Diaspora: what is Haitian popular music really like, and how can it be compared to Cuban and Jamaican popular music?

A question I want to answer equally for myself – filling a “knowledge gap” so to speak -, as for any readers out there.


Of course, it is well-known that both Jamaican and Cuban music had a disproportionally large international impact, even on global pop music, and reaching the US and Europe as well. Originally Afro-Cuban Conga’s and Bongo’s are nowadays among the best known percussion instruments, Salsa (mostly based on Cuban music) is widely known, and Jamaica’s Reggae music, and especially, Bob Marley, likewise. Haitian music seemed to have internationalized less.

Many people might not even be able to name Haitian pop music genres, even if they know other Caribbean ones, like Reggae (Jamaica), Merengue & Bachata (Dominican Republic), Son, Salsa & Rumba (Cuba), Calypso & Soca (Trinidad & Tobago) etcetera etcetera.

That Haiti is relatively poorer might be a reason, but also the language barrier. In fact, there are Haitian music genres with a long history, that were even internationally influential. Vodou drumming music as part of traditional music, Rara and Carnival music is also a living and maintained tradition in Haiti, showing strong African influences.

Relatively many slaves ending up in Haiti were from what is now the Benin and Togo area, and were from the Fon- and Ewe-speaking groups, just West of Yorubaland. There were however also other African influences, such as from Senegambia, the Yoruba, and the Congo area. These all shaped Vodou, and its accompanying music, as well as other traditional music.


Combined with French colonial influences this resulted in a local music genre developed in Haiti, called “méringue”, appearing historically around 1850. It combined influences of French ballroom music, notably contredanse and other music, with African music, such as from the Congo area, noticeable in the rhythmic, syncopated five-beat pattern in it, as Wikipedia says: “borrowed from the Vodou rhythm “Kongo” (also known as “Petwo”), having this five-beat pattern as timeline.

Other sources also point at more pan-Caribbean genres among enslaved Africans (also found in St Domingue/Haiti), influencing Méringue in its genesis, called “calenda” or “chica”. These genres are as much dances as music forms known since the 17th c., calenda being kind of a martial art form as well, while both these dances were known as “erotic”. Regarding the African origins, also these are mostly associated with the Congo region.

While historically related, Méringue differs from Dominican Merengue from its neighbor the Dominican Republic, being overall slower, and played with string instruments, rather than the accordion, as traditional Dominican Merengue. The mellow, swaying groove feel of Haitian Meringue became popular in Haiti itself, but also in other French colonies, like Martinique and Guadeloupe, influencing music forms there.


An updated version of méringue, called Kompa/Compas (also Kompa Direct), developed over time in Haiti, around 1950. It became somewhat more modern and international, and also became likewise popular in other former French colonies. Compared to the more string-based Méringue (which also had drums) it was a bit more rhythmic and focused on dance, in part by adding some drums. In time, it absorbed other influences, such as from calypso or hip-hop.

The Zouk music genre that developed in Martinique and Guadeloupe is in fact largely derived from such Haitian Kompa models. Not everyone knows that.


While Compa can be seen as a modernized Méringue, another modernization on Compa followed suit, in the 1960s, called the Cadence, and even more focused on dancing. It added a second drum, sounding the fourth beat of every other measure. This second, added drum was a lower one than the other. It changed the groove a bit, on the same Méringue/Compa basis.


At first Haitian music influenced neighbouring parts of Hispaniola; Dominican Merengue in essence derived from Haitian Méringue, with own accents, including instrument changes and a faster pace. Also something that many might not know. Or deny.

However, this Haitian/French Caribbean music influenced also other areas, such as elsewhere in the French Caribbean (Guadeloupe, Martinique, a.o.), but even non-French colonies, such as Cape Verde/Cabo Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the West African coast. Also, in some other African countries, Haitian music became an influence.

So, one can conclude that Haitian music internationalized as well, only with less connections to the English-speaking or Spanish-speaking world. Now, well-known groups (even outside the Francophone world) as Kassav’ from Martinique in the Caribbean, but also Cape Verdian artists like Cesaria Evora, show Haitian musical influences in their work, particularly from Compas music. There is a strong Haitian influence on Cape Verdean music. Quite similar to how Cuban music genres like Son influenced some Congolese music.


I am a percussion aficionado. I have been playing various percussion instruments since around 2011, having had several lessons for conga, bongos, and further also djembe, talking drum, some small percussion instruments, taking it further through self-study.

I have thus gathered quite some knowledge on the world of percussion instruments, of different cultural origins, though specialized in the African Diaspora. Of some countries more in detail than of others, I admit, but broadly speaking I know quite something about Caribbean percussion by now.

The national instrument of Haiti is called a “tanbou”, and is a barrel drum. Other drums, including those in Vodou, are in shape somewhat comparable to the Conga, others with a slightly conical shape remind of the Ashiko drum, to which I devoted another blog post/essay. The use of cow-skin makes such drums even more comparable to the Afro-Cuban conga, also in sound. The three-drum combination (father, mother, and child) in many Vodou rituals furthermore has clear similarities with (Afro-Cuban) Santeria drumming. Santería and Vodou generally share that they are danced, spirit-based religions, in which drumming is important.

They further have several spiritual and ritual similarities, also due to their origins in “bordering” parts of West Africa. Santería is mostly Yoruba-based, but Vodou has a Fon and Ewe base (from an area in Africa just West of Yorubaland: Benin/Togo) with several other influences from the Yoruba and Congo, also influential in Cuba. Papa Legba, a Vodou “Loa” (deity) connected with crossroads, and an intermediary between Loa’s/deities and humans, has an equivalent in Afro-Cuban Santería in the deity Elegguá. Also the expression “Leggo Beast” in Jamaica, for a possessing spirit, is etymologically related to this.

Just one of several “pan-Caribbean” African retentions. Also Trinidad knows a Yoruba-based religion called Shango, due to the proportion of Yoruba among the enslaved Africans there.

How do these broad cultural similarities translate to music?


Putumayo is a label having released World Music compilation album, including one on the French Caribbean in 2003, with some Haitian songs. In the liner notes, though, the origins of Compas are not described correctly, it seems, at least when compared to other sources. To cite: “Musically, the style (Compas) has incorporated influences ranging from Dominican merengue, Trinidadian calypso, American jazz and swing, and, recently, hip-hop”. While there is some truth to the jazz and calypso (or hip-hop) influences on Compas, it is based on Haitian Méringue – as I said before – which in turn influenced Dominican Merengue. Not the other way around.

The liner notes further point justly at the pioneering role of saxophonist Jean-Baptiste Nemours in Haitian Compas.

Added to all this can be the influence of Cuban music on Haiti, which has been documented for a long time, just like there were vice-versa Haitian musical influences in Eastern Cuba, notable in historical Tumba Francesa associations, and for instance in the Santiago de Cuba carnival.


This leads me to some final comparisons and reflections.

There is I think some truth to the Spanish saying “las comparaciones son odiosas” (comparisons are hateful), but comparing is in fact common practice in the academic and scholarly world, of course. This is in turn part of the Western focus on classification and categorization, which for sure has some negative and reductive aspects, but can - despite reasonable objections - be useful for analytical reasons.


Historically, from an African Diaspora perspective, the Congo influence on Haitian popular music genres, like the mentioned Méringue and later Compas, has been more than documented. This occurred largely through Congo-based Vodou percussive patterns.

This Congo influence has been documented in Cuban music too, notably in Eastern Cuba (with proportionally more Africans from the Congo area), where the Son developed: a main precursor to Salsa. Also in Rumba there are Congolese influences, historically.

In Jamaica, influences from the Ghana and Nigeria regions were a bit larger, but among the enslaved Africans there, there was quite a high percentage from the Congo region too (estimated at about 20%). This influenced music too. The Kumina faith and music found among Afro-Jamaicans, especially in Eastern Jamaica is furthermore of Congo region origin, and has influenced rhythmically both Nyabinghi Rastafari (drumming) music as, through this, Reggae, notably in the “heart-beat” rhythmic base.

From my perspective, I do note some similarities between East Cuban Son music, as well as the Changüí music (a precursor to Son) in the Eastern Cuban province in Guantánamo. With the meandering, walking guitar throughout, around a steady pulse, it can be compared to Haitian genres like Méringue or Compas. These are, however, neither overly similar. The Haitian genres tend to be more gently “swaying” and “flowing”, and Cuban genres more “staccato” and poignant. A bit of a different feel. These might relate to differences in African influences – despite a shared Congo base -, but also different other (colonial and European) influences: Spanish and French folk music are different too, after all, historically, and genres like Flamenco and Fandango, as well as Canarian music, are known to have reached Cuba quite early.

Superficially, there are vague similarities between some Haitian genres and Trinidadian Calypso, with Jamaican historical Mento music, and even rhythmically here and there with some Dancehall and Reggae rhythms from Jamaica. All part of shared African origins of course, but with also clear differences, and own accents.

Just one example ofa Dancehall Riddim that I find has some characteristics in common with Haitian music is the Shack Riddim: a quite danceable one, by the way.


This leads me to conclude that Haitian music is quite unique, in its synthesis of African and European influences, being specific Congo rhythms (mainly) and specific French ballroom and other music, resulting in a feel I would describe – in fact, I already did a few times – as “swaying”. It is often mid-tempo but kind of mellow and “flowing”. A continuous pulse, with less closed rhythmical patterns as known in Jamaican Rocksteady, Reggae, and Dancehall, and less “spatial” and closed as well, when compared to much Cuban music, or some Brazilian genres.

How this “swaying” or “gentle” swaying as some describe it, can be explained, I am not quite sure of. It can be a specific interpretation of Congo rhythms. At the same time, it could be the influence of French courtroom and ballroom music (Contredanse, Waltz a.o.), showing how Haiti was a French, and not a British or French colony.

After all, just like there are many different cultures within sub-Saharan Africa itself, so there are also cultural differences within Europe. Even between Catholic, “Latino” countries like Spain, France, and Italy, due to some historical differences, and perhaps the environment. Spanish folk music tends to be – generalizing a bit – somewhat more “rough-edged” and rhythmical when compared to many more melodic, subtle, “mellow” folk music genres from France or Italy, especially in South Spain, where Flamenco is from. More “fire” let’s say. In Northwest Spain there are Celtic influences as in other countries (including France), while Catalonian music in Northeastern Spain tends to have that subtle, gentle swaying more in common with music from neighbouring France (and the Provence), than other parts of Spain. Maybe similar to how the Catalan language has more similarities with Provençale, French, and Italian than Castilian Spanish.

All this might have impacted on how European influences mixed with African ones, resulting in a relatively gentle, swaying feel of much Haitian music, and a somewhat “rougher-edged” rhythmic feel of former Spanish colony Cuba.

The common denominator – though – remains the rhythmic base deriving from African origins, including rhythmic patterns, principles like “call-and-response”, and instruments, all also found in Haitian music, of course.

Interesting, how from both African and European influences in the Americas different music genres developed, with own accents and “feels”, but with also shared features, such as the rhythmic pulse.

That is the beauty of culture and music development, I guess, the space for variation and “free” diversity in expressing oneself musically, from different or even similar influences and sources.

The similar influences in this case being how African, mainly Congo-based percussive/drum patterns from spirit belief systems (Vodou in Haiti) fed into the popular music rhythmically, and shaped each genre in an own way, and mixed with different other aspects, e.g. from Europe or the Amerindians. There is therefore a subtle, yet maintained relationship between spirituality, rhythm, and dancing in all Afro-Caribbean genres.

How you dance to them can differ, of course..