By Monica Kendrick
Buying any of the many "world music" samplers on the market right now is like collecting messages in bottles without reading them. Whether they're plucked from Tangier or Tibet or anywhere else in the world where people don't speak English, the mysterious and exotic tunes that score our cosmopolitan cocktail parties often come out of cultures where the song is so integral to the singer's daily existence that it can't simply be clipped back into its plastic box when the party's over. Ironically, that's exactly what many casual world-music fans are after--not unlike some fans of hip-hop. Directness and urgency are sorely lacking in white American pop, where revolution is largely a fashion term. This is why people who don't know their Tutsis from a hole in the ground fret when Western influences turn up on recordings by African musicians. But in a world where Asian experimental rock, South American metal, and Indian electronica can blow away their Anglo counterparts, it's also some serious postcolonialist horsepucky.
The best example of what I'd call real world music--music that draws on traditions from around the world--that I've heard recently is Revolution, the third album from the Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans. The 11-piece outfit's sprawling, unpruned amalgamation of half a dozen identifiable genres from almost as many continents sounds fresh but not naive, simultaneously pissed off and celebratory. The opener, "Sevelan/Sukiyaki (No More Excuses for the War)," incorporates deep subsonic beats, call-and-response harmonies, and the lilting melodies of both the Haitian traditional "Sevelan" and Kyu Sakamoto's 1963 number one hit "Sukiyaki." The subtitle is sung in both English and Creole, to make sure no one misses the point, and you can actually hear the musicians cackling at their own audacity at the end. From there the album steamrolls through hip-hop, the upbeat carnival music called rara, Afro-pop, stadium rock, Marvin Gaye-style R & B protest balladry, and even the sort of what-hath-Mickey-Hart-wrought hippie groove that's a staple of stoned soul picnics like New York's summer concerts in Central Park--where, a friend in that city tells me, Boukman Eksperyans always gets a great turnout.
The band's easy way with postmodernism may stem from its connection to the predominant Haitian religion of voodoo (which, to my endless frustration, Webster's doesn't capitalize). Like its cousins Santeria and Candomble, voodoo merged the Catholic iconography and ritual symbolism of European slave owners with compatible aspects of the spirituality of the involuntary African immigrants to form a belief system that reveals deep truths about human motivation. New symbols are hungrily appropriated even today--a contemporary voodoo altar might use a photo of Princess Di to represent a spirit of love and tragedy or a Darth Vader action figure to represent a spirit of mortality and war, right alongside traditional African gourd- and beadwork. As a staggering exhibit of voodoo art at the Field Museum a couple years ago made clear, voodoo values its aesthetic and semiotic resourcefulness very highly. Traditional and spiritual, yes, but pure in a way a roots-crazed truffle hunter can love, no. Boukman Eksperyans, formed in the late 70s when a Haitian Protestant couple decided to inspect their roots, is named for the voodoo priest who, according to legend, conducted the ceremony that inspired Jean-Jacques Dessalines to lead the final revolt against the French that made Haiti independent in 1804. But it's also named for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In voodoo ceremonies, the gods are invoked, appealed to, and then asked very politely to leave their exhausted followers by way of drumming, song, and dance, and everyone raised in the faith learns some form of participation from childhood, just like a Catholic kid learns to pipe down while the guy in the robe is talking. The line between secular and sacred gets mighty blurry--and in the intensely politicized atmosphere of Haiti, so does the one between entertainment and life. Boukman Eksperyans has had to deal with armed presences at festival performances trying to ensure that the band wouldn't perform its banned hits of the early 90s: "Kalfou Danjere" ("Dangerous Crossroads"), "Nwel Inosan" ("Innocent Christmas"), and "Ke'-m Pa Sote" ("I'm Not Afraid" or "My Heart Doesn't Leap"). In 1994 the group lost a bass player to bacterial meningitis because the antibiotics that might have saved him weren't available during the embargo that followed the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Shortly thereafter the group found themselves homeless when, coming off a European tour, they were denied entry into both the U.S. and Haiti; undaunted, they went to Jamaica and made a record. Yet they keep recording bannables: Revolution's liner notes describe "Baron" as a song "that denounces the negative effects of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on the poor countries... played on the Congo rara rhythm and hip hop."
That sums up the record as well as anything, but it hardly begins to suggest what enduring fun it is. There's a Haitian proverb that warns, "When the anthropologist arrives, the gods depart." But not so from this album--not from the joyous recontextualization of cheesy rock guitar on "Nou Pa Vle Lage (We Don't Want No War)," not from the heated conversational frenzy of "Peye Loa Yo" (loosely translatable as "pay the gods or else"), which juxtaposes rara with some severely laissez-faire horn charts. Revolution is a near perfect blend of rage and sunshine, witty pop smarts and true grit; it refuses to believe that the brain is more important than the booty or that there is no pleasure to be found in thinking.
As often as the album rose to the top of my play pile this summer, I didn't completely understand Boukman Eksperyans until I saw the band live at the Wild Hare in late September. There the pop playfulness moved to the edges, where it lingered like a verge-of-cracking-up smile on the face of someone delivering a vitally important speech. In the crowded club, the front row was dominated by flag-waving Haitian expatriates, some bearing the accoutrements of voodoo. Nothing was couched and everyone was moving. The drumming of Hans "Bwa Gris" Dominique, Henry B.D. Pierre Joseph, Alexis Raymond, and Gary Seney came to the forefront, drawing out songs like Revolution's mesmerizing "Mesaj a Ginen" (a tribute to "the characters that have marked the history of the great religions: Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed and Boukman") into marathon deep-dance explorations. Vocalist and bandleader Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun Jr. cooed and exhorted, his voice cracking like a gospel preacher's, while his partner Mimerose "Manze" Beaubrun, skirts swirling in perfect priestess rhythm, wailed and chided in counterpoint. Voodoo ceremonies often last for days, and I got the feeling that if it weren't for Chicago liquor licensing laws, this ceremony might have too.
The liner notes to Boukman Eksperyans's 1992 album, Kalfou Danjere (Mango), ascribe the band's increasing success to the Haitian immigrant community in America, where bootleg cassettes have been circulating since the band first recorded, in the late 80s. Now that community includes the Eksperyans's famous friends the Fugees. Revolution was recorded at their Refugee Camp studios in New Jersey, and it has a streetwise sound and an ease with American forms that the earlier albums don't have. All the sociological mumbo jumbo that's nonetheless necessary to ease our digestion of it reflects oddly back on the American culture industry, and particularly the way we feel free to scrutinize other societies with an intellectual distance we spare ourselves. I remember a spurt of hate mail this paper received in 1997 in response to a review of Pavement's Brighten the Corners that dared examine how the indie-rock golden boys' privileged white background played out in their music--as if those questions were so irrelevant as to be insulting. But in fact, the more distinctions we draw between real life and mere entertainment, the less relevant to our lives our entertainment will become.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo/ album cover.