Alan Lomax in Haiti: A Personal Journey of Discovery
by Bob Moses
When 21-year-old Alan Lomax dragged 155 pounds of luggage and recording equipment into the heat and humanity of Port-au-Prince’s dockside, he entered a crucible. In the Christmas season of 1936, Haiti was re-forging a national identity after a 15-year U.S. occupation. The island nation was discovering the roots of its rural culture in Africa, struggling to reconcile the class and race issues arising from a mixed French, Spanish and African heritage, and the cosmopolitan urban culture and folk traditions of the rural poor. Lomax, too, was coming of age in his first solo venture in ethnography, while wrestling with emotional uncertainty, romantic longing, technical challenges, sickness, and financial woes. On November 17, Harte Recordings will release Alan Lomax in Haiti, a 10-CD audio and video box set that reveals for the first time the musical and cultural fruits of that national and personal struggle.
Lomax entered a society stressed by poverty and occupation. The United States took control of Haiti in 1915 to patrol sea-lanes to the Panama Canal on the eve of WWI and to preserve order for the sugar companies. In 1936, the Marines had withdrawn just two years before, leaving behind a fragile representative government. The new independence also stimulated interest in folkloric traditions, as expressed in the indigène movement and the work of Haitian classical composer Ludovic Lamothe (his only recorded performances of his own work are on the set’s first disc). Though officially outlawed, Voudou music and ceremonies attracted sensationalists in the late 1920s and early 30s, such as Hollywood zombie-movie maker William Seabrook — which provoked an understandable mistrust of the ethnographers who followed.
Haiti in the 1930s was a magnet for scholars and ethnographers such as Lomax who were pursuing the trail of African-American culture to its sources in Africa. The lighter-skinned, urban upper classes identified with French culture and Catholicism, while the separateness of the undeveloped rural countryside that was home to Haiti’s masses allowed African expressions to flourish and hybridize with European elements. That relatively untouched terrain brought anthropologist Melville Herskovits, dancer and writer Katherine Dunham, author (and Lomax collaborator) Zora Neale Hurston, and several other researchers, including George Simpson and Harold Courlander, to Haiti during this period. Both in the United States and abroad, the late 1930s ushered in a new era of exploration of indigenous culture, folklore and the expressions of the rural poor. The shared experience of the global Depression created fellow feeling and interest in the lives and accomplishments of ordinary people. In the U.S., these realities were being documented by artists and writers employed by U.S. Federal programs. Previous expeditions to Haiti resulted in rich descriptions; Lomax brought back sounds and images &mdash allowing them speak to us directly.
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