On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake occurred in the town of Léogâne, near Port-au Prince, the capital city of Haiti. The death toll was estimated at 250,000 and only in 2019 did the Port-au-Prince population surpass pre-earthquake levels. A cholera outbreak in October 2010 worsened lives in Haiti still. The only low-income country in the Americas, ranking 170th out of 189 on last year’s Human Development Index, three in five Haitians live below the poverty line.
Haiti had hundreds of millions in international aid suspended in 2019 due to not having a sitting government. President Jovenel Moïse appointed Jean-Michel Lapin as Prime Minister of Haiti in March 2019, although as this was never confirmed by the Haitian Parliament, Haiti lacked a government; a requisite for such aid. Haitian Parliamentary elections would be delayed by two years, protests against the government would ensue in the capital, and President Moïse would rule by decree, with the span of his presidency under dispute, until his assassination on July 7th of this year.
Lakou Mizik formed in the wake of the devastating earthquake. Steeve Valcourt, son of esteemed Haitian musician Boulo Valcourt, took singer Jonas Attis and American producer Zach Niles to his studio one night in November 2010, where Lakou Mizik would be born; feeling that the rich Haitian musical culture could remedy the waves of gloom in light of the earthquake, cholera epidemic and political instability.
Their aim was to show the world that Haiti was more than its pessimistic headlines. Lakou Mizik would become a multigenerational ensemble of musicians, ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties, boasting powerful vocalists, traditional Rara horns, masterful percussion and an accordion. With an unequivocally Haitian sound, they blend Rara music (a traditional form of Haitian street music) with ritualistic Vodou music (an often misrepresented religion in the West) and Twoubadou (a popular guitar-based Haitian genre) amongst more familiar sounds for the international community.
Dancing and audience participation is an important and cultural part of Lakou Mizik‘s soulful, spiritual live performances. The collective have received international recognition and their 2016 debut album ‘Wa Di Yo’ was well-acclaimed by critics and fans alike.
A few years ago, Lakou Mizik would meet Joseph Ray, a Grammy-winning producer with Nero, founded in the mid-2000s when Ray was a teenager, after training as a classical guitarist. Nero‘s drum-and-bass EP Requiem prompted their ascendancy within EDM circles in 2006, and ‘Welcome Reality’ would reach Number One in the UK Albums Chart in 2011.
Ray knew little of Haiti prior to his travels, but exposed to the vibrant musical culture for the first time, he would record Leave the Bones with Lakou Mizik whilst there. His presence on the release is clear without being overbearing. There is plenty about Leave the Bones that is quintessentially Haitian, from the sense of rhythm to the call-and-response vocals, with close harmonies within each ‘response’. Yet Ray brings this into the modern Western nightclub with production that anyone, regardless of nationality or background, could dance to, and wide soundscaping that can be as subtle as it is complex.
‘Sanba Yo Pran Pale’, the album prologue, begins with call-and-response singing, immediately signalling the traditionalist setting to Leave The Bones. Yet as it seamlessly segues into ‘Kite Zo A’, we get the first indication that this is more than music of such a sense; Ray cleverly enhances the Haitian rhythms, giving them a full, rich texture that is scarcely achieved from acoustic instrumentation alone. Hypnotic and driving, it is easy for one to be lulled into the track as it ebbs and flows, with Ray‘s addition and withholding of bass drum satisfyingly controlling the song’s direction. The multi-layered vocal harmonies provide a great level of interest at the top of the mix.
‘Kite Zo A’ continues into ‘Night Drums’, a true example of ‘calm before storm’, a short track led by Haitian percussion, with some ambience over the top from Ray to direct the album from one song to the next.
‘Lamizè Pa Dous’, released as a single in June, translates to ‘misery is not sweet’. Lyrically bleak, it focuses on a woman’s search for support and meaning and her pleas with those around her to help her get to a better place. The music is bright, yet has a bitter, emotional undercurrent that is difficult to ignore.
Yet the music video inverts this, with the way it captures a sense of optimism through dance, children playing and Haitian Rara music. In many ways, it represents much about the ethos of Lakou Mizik, with their defiant hope in spite of the adversity surrounding them.
‘No Rival!’ opens with a soulful male vocal before rich vocal harmonies and Ray‘s synthesiser respond to his calls; as it drops into an irresistible, uptempo dance beat, it’s difficult not to move in your seat as you hear it. The atmosphere in a live music setting would surely be spectacular, and you can feel the energy pour from your speakers. Under Ray‘s masterful control, the song utilises light and shade to prevent any one-dimensionality and keep the listener engaged.
‘Ogou (Pran Ka Mwen)’ begins in a more brooding manner, with soft guitar melodies driven by those rhythms that appear simple on surface level, but have all sorts of complexities hidden away for the listener to unlock. Ultimately, the song progresses into more typical dance territory, although the emotional identity of the song is still distinct. The lyrics match the nature of the music; hopeful and uplifting, yet haunting, as a worshipper of Ogou, the Vodou spirit of iron and war, asks for support through the hardships of life. Released as a single on May 18th, which is also Haitian Flag Day, it is a poignant album centrepiece.
‘Zeb Até’ opens softly, with gentle ambience from Ray accompanying a lone female vocal. The melody is joyful, and is backed by synth work that only does as it needs to, with distant rhythmic sounds in the background creating suspense and, at times, tension.
It sets the scene perfectly as an intro for ‘Bade Zile’, which follows. A traditional Vodou spiritual song – that featured on Lakou Mizik‘s first album in a more traditional, stripped back form – it is virtually synonymous with Haiti itself. On Leave The Bones, however, it serves as a prime example of the cinematic soundscape that Joseph Ray contributes to the music of Lakou Mizik.
It retains the Haitian sense of danceability, but under Ray‘s production is framed in the context of a typical Western nightclub, and new life is breathed into the song. One can picture the way it would bring people together in such clubs; a potent mental image after a year of pandemic restrictions, but which is also in line with Lakou Mizik‘s ethos of positivity in the face of adversity. A truly uplifting, mirthful rendition, it will be an album highlight for many.
‘Nou Tout Se Moun’ (translation: ‘We Are All Human’) has a mournful feel to it. With sparser instrumentation, it allows the album to breathe after the euphoria of ‘Bade Zile’ before it. Although in a major key, the compositional use of the mediant chord gives the track a distinct sadness. The focus on the solo female vocal, with distant harmonies occasionally bringing extra texture, brings the emotion of the song to the forefront.
‘Boukman O” follows, with call-and-response singing that has an air of celebration, before it softly fades out into album closer ‘Simbi Nan Dlo’. It allows Leave The Bones to end on a high note; the call-and-response vocalisations suggest a sense of community and group singing. However, the use of stringed instrumentation in the mix implies a somewhat wistful undercurrent. The final 150 seconds are a soft fade, as the strings take centre stage, with occasional, distant vocals; though the musical qualities are bright, the undertones of hardship cannot be ignored. This is ultimately representative of the ethos of Lakou Mizik as a whole.
This is certainly a strong collaboration. The commendable album structuring makes it an undeniable Lakou Mizik record; there is never too much about struggle without an intermission for celebration, and vice versa. With Vodou influence scattered throughout, the emotions of recent national friction prevalent and frequent use of traditional rhythms, Leave The Bones has Haiti running through its veins.
Yet, Ray‘s tasteful influencing and oversight never overpowers or appropriates over the identity of Lakou Mizik, while still expanding the sonic horizon of the group, giving Leave The Bones a sense of familiarity to an even wider audience. A must-listen.
‘Leave The Bones’ will be released on August 6th 2021 via Anjunadeep.