By Jean H Charles
The Haiti International Jazz Festival is in its seventh edition, yet it is my first encounter with the festival. The Haitian tourism calendar is fortunate to have such a prestigious event as the coup d’envoie to its yearlong cultural activities. I have been a regular of the New Orleans Jazz Festival almost from the beginning in the 70s, in my school days at Tulane University. I enjoy going back often to the Jazz Festival in St Lucia. These are major events that attract thousands of tourists, bringing a major impact to the economy of Louisiana and of St Lucia.
Jean Hervé Charles LLB, MSW, JD, former Vice-Dean of Students at City College of the City University of New York, is now responsible for policy and public relations for the political platform in power in Haiti, Répons Peyisan. He can be reached at: jeanhcharles@aol
The Haiti International Jazz Festival is still in its infancy. In fact, I am taking the chance of changing its name from Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival to Haiti International Jazz Festival. I am hoping the organizers will follow suit and make it a true national and international festival. Haiti cannot afford to stage another jazz festival in a different city in the same year; in addition, setting the event in major cities each day of the Festival will add charm, cachet and improve the tourism experience for all, the locals and the foreigners.
Jazz music is new to Haiti, in spite of the fact that the jazz experience is part of the Haitian DNA. Watching Branford Marsalis starting the festival at Jacmel, I asked my companion to describe the sentiments felt… I had to educate her about the erotic emotion of the jazz experience. To me, jazz music is like making love to a woman (hopefully it is also vice versa). There is spontaneity, there is diminuendo leading to the crescendo, the pause, and the repetition of the same notes, the unexpected, the jazzy groove that gives you at the end the ecstasy of having gone to paradise and coming back to earth renewed and rejuvenated.
It was as such during a whole week from January 19 to January 26 in Haiti, where the United States, Canada, France, Mexico, Spain, Brazil and Switzerland combined to bring to the island nation, right after the days marking the anniversary of the earthquake (January 12), the gift of their best jazz music players. To mark the 150th anniversary of the continuous international intercourse between Haiti and the United States, Regine Rene Labrousse, the American Embassy cultural attaché, told the crowd in Jacmel that the US sent its premier star jazz player, Branford Marsalis and his group.
Staging a major international jazz festival takes a whole year of preparation. Its sponsor, the Haitian Jazz Foundation, led by Joel Widmaier and Milena Sandler, did not know, upon publication of the brochure of the event, if Jacmel as a venue could be added to the event, and if the media would receive transportation support and assistance.
Jazz is new to Haiti and, as such, public contribution by the government and civil society is not always forthcoming. Yet, the ministry of culture, in spite of austerity measures imposed by the Haitian government, has maintained its budgetary contribution at the same level as last year; a last minute announcement that gave an “ouf” of relief to the event organizers.
The jazz festival that started in Jacmel took place mainly in Port au Prince. With a full moon plotting happily to add its mystic and erotic touch, jazz music aficionados moved from the garden of the French Institute, to the garden of Fokal and then to the magnificent plaza of the Karibe Hotel to the historic sugar cane park. It was all free, except for the event at the Sugar Cane Park, where the entrance fee was US$20.
The international jazz players included: Augusting Carbonell, “El Bola”, from Spain; Benjamin Struelens from Belgium; Molly Johnson from Canada; Sandro Schneebeli from Switzerland; Timo Vollbrecht from Germany; and Ilan Bar Lavi from Mexico. Those international stars intermingled with a fusion product that included Haitian artists such as Melanie Charles; Vanessa Jacquemin; Michou and the much loved troubadour, Belo.
During the jazz sessions, I took time to watch the crowd; the young men and women were all mesmerized by the dexterity of each player, the intensity of the partners, and the synchronization of disparate movements leading to a perfect landing at the end.
Whether Haiti will use its international jazz festival in January to capture its market share of the tourist industry will depend on the vision of the festival organizers. I put that question to Mrs Regine Rene Labrousse, the American Embassy cultural attaché, a native of New Orleans with Haitian roots. She answered with the diplomatic cachet expected from a diplomat, but I could sense the message that the Haitians must own their international jazz festival. They must be willing to pay for the cost and reap the benefits therein.
In a coveted global circuit of jazz festivals, Haiti has the luck of the Irish to be first on the hosting line, in the middle of January, when the weather in Europe, the United States and Canada is freezing. It might seem easy if the tourists could use the Jared Diamond formula of “constructive paranoia”: being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk but encounter frequently to get themselves to Haiti where the weather is on beau fixe, the festival free, the culture free and an excellent cuisine cheap and convenient. (Dinner or lunch of fried plantain, banana pezée with grio: crisp fried pork or grilled chicken: poulet boucanné including hot salad with homemade organic juice: less than US$5.) The full week that the Haiti Jazz Festival took place was without a minor incident that could be registered as an infraction.
The Haiti International Jazz Festival can serve as the harbinger to bring back the tourist industry to Haiti. Once they taste the legendary hospitality of Haiti and of the Haitian people, I am sure they will come back to the island after a quick trip back home, to avoid the thaw of February. They will head again to Haiti for Mardi Gras; it will take place this year in the colonial and museum like city of Cap Haitian. March is dedicated to Rara, the rural carnival; from the beginning of May to November 1, the festival of saints will bring you as close as possible to the medieval era in our modern civilization in the different villages of Haiti.
The organizers will have to garner the support of the very dynamic minister of tourism, Mrs Stephanie Villedrouin, as well as her director general, Mrs Josette Darguste, promoted recently to Minister of Culture, to make the Haiti International Jazz Festival a passage oblige for the many fans of jazz all over the world. They will need also to consult with the veteran organizers of the jazz festivals from New Orleans and St Lucia on how to entice an international crowd to such a spectacular event.
My rolodex has the name of an influential international ad marketer who is willing to promote Haiti á la South Africa after Mandela for a few years free of charge. It should be taken up for next year Haiti International Jazz Festival. Albeit warnings to the contrary, Haiti is set to become a major and unique tourist attraction in the Caribbean which is as close as possible to the culture of New Orleans, where the trademark and the roots came from anyway!
Note: Haiti can be reached from major international hubs with different airlines such as Delta, American Airlines, Air France, Air Canada, Continental, Insel Air, Spirit, Copa, KLM and United. Sunrise airline and Tortug’air offer local connections with Port au Prince to Cap Haitian and other cities of Haiti.