Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section(last revision 02/11/99)
TITLE: ANGELS IN THE MIRROR: VODOU MUSIC OF HAITI ARTIST: VARIOUS FORMAT: CD/BOOK NUMBER: 4120 COMPANY: ELLIPSIS ARTS
The 64-page hardcover book that encloses this 1997 CD is a little gem with sections entitled: "The Roots of Vodou," "Singing to Catch the Angels," "The Drum is Like a Person," "Dancing and Dance Drama," "Interview with Mimerose Beaubrun [singer/ethnologist]," "Proverbs," "Track Notes," "Producer's Notes," "Glossary [of Creole terms]," "Musicians" among others. The "Resources" contain useful websites for information on Haiti, contact addresses (post, phone and email) directly to Yih, McAlister, and Nicolas, recommended recordings of Afro-Haitian religious music (five titles), and five recommended books published between 1989 and 1997. They've even included a recipe for Soup Joumou, a widespread Haitian Sunday meal favorite.
Most of the track notes are accompanied by a photo of (at least some of) the musicians whose music you are hearing on that track. This is valuable to the listener who may not be familiar with all the Haitian instruments, such as the "tambou a liny" or the "vaksin" (a bamboo horn resembling--in appearance only!--a didgeridoo featured in the rara band on track 12: "M Pap Mache a teanye"). While a more detailed accounting of the instruments used in each selection would have been welcome, we at least have mention of some of the more unusual ones.
The typical track note gives the title of the song, the rhythm/dance (or other) tradition with which it is associated or from which it derives, the words of the song in Creole, the English translation, and a few sentences on how and to what extent the particular selection relates to Haitian vodou culture and practice and Haitian musical history and/or the current musical scene. Some of the selections are more directly rooted in ceremonial practice, others derive from them but have been integrated into a wider cultural context.
The singing on some of the cuts is clearly not highly polished, studio material, rather it has the sound and feel of a field recording, which basically it is, and that is an endearing quality of this recording; one feels the immediacy of the recorded moment, the presence of these people. And one has some sense of being witness to an event, not just a performance. This is however by no means meant to imply that there is anything less than highly professional about the recording itself. The vocal and instrumental components are clear and accessible. If occasionally a vocalist begins a cut sounding rather "off mike" -- don't touch the volume control! The situation rectifies itself. I'd prefer to interpret it as part of the intended "live--on site" ambience. In any case, this reviewer doesn't find it troublesome.
A high level of respect for the people and their traditions is amply demonstrated by the producers/authors and recording team throughout. The series ellipsis arts "Musical Expeditions" Executive Producer is Jeffrey Charno. This CD (#20 in the series) was produced by Holly Nicolas (Haiti/Connecticut); Y.-M. David Yih, PhD (teaches at the University of New Haven and/or Wesleyan University in Connecticut) and Liza McAlister, PhD (also at Connecticut Wesleyan). Both Yih and McAlister, authors of the book, wrote 1995 dissertations (Wesleyan and Yale, resp.) on Haitian music, and both have studied music extensively in Haiti. The Project Coordinator was Russell Carno D.C.; the Recording, Mixing, and Mastering are by Mark Waldrep of Pacific Coast Soundworks.
There is no attempt to make out of the collection anything more than it is, an introductory sampling of vodou elements in the Haitian music of today. "Each of the six musical communities represented in this project is a talented extended family, devoted to the spirits of Vodou." (p. 57) One could argue about the organization of the selections when it comes to the "didactic" intent of the undertaking, but I find the aesthetic judgment to have prevailed here, which is to say the song selections are beautifully sequenced by editor McAlister.
The songs can be very haunting (for me in particular the last track), sometimes because of their particular melodic lines, in part because of the mysterious messages contained in the lyrics, and certainly on more than one occasion owing to of the--(for the non-Haitian ear, I would venture to say)--unusual instrumentation.
For the $16.99 that Borders Books has been charging for this package, it is a fantastic "bargain," especially when one considers that some of the proceeds from the sale are sent by the recording company to The Lambi Fund of Haiti [Lambi@igc.apc.org] "which supports community-based projects leading to economic and political justice."
Since it is written for the hand-drumming community of the djembe-list, this review will close with a listing of the rhythms one encounters on "Angels in the Mirror": Yanvalou, Kongo--these first two together on an especially smokin' second track: "Port-au-Prince Drumming Demonstration" [the connection to Vodou on this one track is not elucidated by the authors], Chase, Kase, Nago, Mennwat (minuet), Mayi, Djouba, and Banda, along with two examples of contemporary roots music known as "mizik rasin."
Since I first recommended this new release on the list at the beginning of the year, there have been other enthusiastic responses from listers who went out to find it. It has evidently still been in good supply--at Borders in any case. In summary: for its informative text, its good, well-recorded music, and the many, many excellent photos, "Angels in the Mirror" is not to be passed up.
ellipsis arts ; 20 Lumber Road Ste 1 [or: POB 305] Roslyn, NY 11576-9894; 1 800 788-6670; email@example.com.
Pete Carels (revised 7/7/98)