Alan Lomax in Haiti (Harte Recordings)
This 10-disc box set of field recordings collected by the pioneering ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in 1936 is loaded with beautiful songs, but the no-fi quality of the tapes ensures that Alan Lomax in Haiti will mostly be valuable as a sound documentary. The discs are arranged according to a particular theme—work songs, Mardi Gras songs, meringues, ceremonial songs, and religious music, including a disc of vodou music. It’s folk music in the purest sense, the ritual sounds of everyday life, composed and played by and for the people involved rather than for audiences. It’s essentially an audio textbook—you won’t be playing this at parties unless you have very weird friends.
As an introduction to the music of Haiti, then, it’s probably overwhelming for the casual listener. But as an introduction to Alan Lomax, it’s still an essential document. The roots of everything Lomax did later—he was just 21 when he visited Haiti—are here, and it’s likely that the cross-cultural polyglot nature of Haiti at the time influenced his interest in tracing the sources of folk and popular music in the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean. In Haiti he encountered a mix of indigenous island music as well as traditions from West Africa, France, and America, much as the folk music he studied later in the U.S. drew on sources from around the world.