Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism

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While the Haitian musical tradition is probably best known for the Vodou-inspired roots music that helped topple the two-generation Duvalier dictatorship, the nation’s troubled history of civil unrest and its tangled relationship with the United States is more intensely experienced through its art music, which combines French and German elements of classical music with Haiti's indigenous folk music. Vodou Nation examines art music by Haitian and African American composers who were inspired by Haiti’s history as a nation created by slave revolt. 

Around the time of the United States’s occupation of Haiti in 1915, African American composers began to incorporate Vodou-inspired musical idioms to showcase black artistry and protest white oppression. Together with Haitian musicians, these composers helped create what Michael Largey calls the “Vodou Nation,” an ideal vision of Haiti that championed its African-based culture as a bulwark against America’s imperialism. Highlighting the contributions of many Haitian and African American composers who wrote music that brought rhythms and melodies of the Vodou ceremony to local and international audiences, Vodou Nation sheds light on a black cosmopolitan musical tradition that was deeply rooted in Haitian culture and politics.

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Editorial Reviews

Transforming Anthropology
Largey skillfully reconstructs the literary and intellectual climate that shaped Haitian music in the Western tradition. . . . A major contribution.

— G. Fleurant

American Ethnologist
Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism offers a compelling account of the agencies and actions of Haitian elites in the period of the 1890s through the 1950s and the development of misik savant ayisyen (Haitian art music). Michael Largey presents a series of well-crafted and finely detailed discussions that foreground the lives and works of selected Haitian intellectuals and art music composers as well as some of their African American counterparts in the United States. These biographies are interwoven within the shifting political fortunes and social alliances among Haitian elites, the foundation of a ‘modern’ Haitian ethnological movement, and the materialization of cosmopolitan diasporic imaginings of an emergent black consciousness. Largey argues that Haitian elites increasingly employed Vodou-inspired cultural practices and aesthetics in their efforts to promote a vibrant and, importantly, ‘authentic’ Haitian national culture.

— William Hope

Gage Averill
Vodou Nation investigates the lives and works of the principal Haitian elite composers who sought cosmopolitan respect as well as national acceptance through the production of nationalist art music. It is also the story of those who followed such musical trends and consumed Haitian elite music and culture. Entertaining and tightly organized, this book explores insightfully the role of art music in mediating tensions in postcolonial societies.”—Gage Averill, Dean, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto
Kay Kaufman Shelemay
“Michael Largey’s Vodou Nation offers a nuanced history and revealing interpretation of the vital role of Haitian composers in constructing national ideology for both domestic and foreign audiences. Largey at once sets forth the important role of compositional activism, explores the ethnographic processes through which the music is constituted, and narrates the emerging politics of Haitian art music. This groundbreaking book stands to make an important contribution to multiple fields well beyond the boundaries of musical scholarship.”—Kay Kaufman Shelemay, G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and African and African American Studies, Harvard University
Transforming Anthropology - G. Fleurant
"Largey skillfully reconstructs the literary and intellectual climate that shaped Haitian music in the Western tradition. . . . A major contribution."
American Ethnologist - William Hope
Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism offers a compelling account of the agencies and actions of Haitian elites in the period of the 1890s through the 1950s and the development of misik savant ayisyen (Haitian art music). Michael Largey presents a series of well-crafted and finely detailed discussions that foreground the lives and works of selected Haitian intellectuals and art music composers as well as some of their African American counterparts in the United States. These biographies are interwoven within the shifting political fortunes and social alliances among Haitian elites, the foundation of a ‘modern’ Haitian ethnological movement, and the materialization of cosmopolitan diasporic imaginings of an emergent black consciousness. Largey argues that Haitian elites increasingly employed Vodou-inspired cultural practices and aesthetics in their efforts to promote a vibrant and, importantly, ‘authentic’ Haitian national culture.”
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Michael Largey is associate professor of music at Michigan State University. He is coauthor of Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae.


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Read an Excerpt


Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism

By MICHAEL LARGEY The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-46863-1

Chapter One


Jean Price-Mars and the Ethnological Movement

Early twentieth-century composers of Haitian mizik savant were part of a larger process of Haitian cultural change. Stimulated by abrupt changes in Haiti's political and economic relations with foreign powers, Haitian elites constructed a nationalist discourse that became a touchstone for most aspects of Haitian cultural production, especially music. A full understanding of Haitian mizik savant produced during the early twentieth century requires knowledge of the prevailing ideological currents in late nineteenth-century Haiti. Several Haitian nationalist schools of thought emerged in Haiti during the first two decades of the twentieth century, due in large part to the disruptive influence of the United States occupation that began in 1915.

This chapter discusses how Haitian elites' concerns shifted from a preoccupation with internal class and color conflicts to a determination to establish a Haitian national identity in the face of foreign intervention. The United States occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 sparked a "nativisticmovement" (Linton 1943) that resulted in several indigenous Haitian responses. The indigenous responses I am concerned with center around the development of the ethnological movement (sometimes called the mouvement indigène or mouvement folklorique) that advocated a reevaluation of Haiti's African ancestry and the establishment of criteria for evaluating the authenticity of Haitian cultural productions. Haitian composers of mizik savant, influenced by the ethnological movement, created new forms of Haitian musical expression that fused indigenous instruments, lyrics, and rhythms with European-influenced musical forms and textures.

While Haitian elites were turning to the Haitian rural underclass as the root of an "authentic" national culture, they were simultaneously considering how Pan-African ideologies affected their relationships with other black populations in the Americas. African American intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and James Weldon Johnson included Haiti as part of a larger, Pan-African diaspora by stressing the common concerns of black people around the world. At the same time, Haitian writers like Jean Price-Mars looked to African American intellectuals for ideas about how to posit an African diasporic culture that embraced similarities with Africans in the United States while maintaining a unique, Haitian culture that resisted absorption into the growing imperial presence of the United States.

The emergence of a Haitian nationalist consciousness in the early twentieth century was tied not only to political and social changes but also to the articulation of scholarly discourses about the nature and origins of national identity. Scholarly interest in constructing a culture to study-epitomized by the work of Jean Price-Mars and members of the ethnological movement-inspired nationalists to adopt Pan-African anthropological rhetoric in service of the nation.


Although Price-Mars is often attributed with first calling attention to the folkloric heritage of the Haitian working class, musical composers, including those he enjoined to use folk sources, had already been borrowing ideas and inspiration from non-elite sources since the late nineteenth century. For example, Haitian military band composer Occide Jeanty, especially in his concert méringues, sought a characteristic Haitian sound for his popular compositions and achieved a high degree of notoriety for his efforts.

Haitian composers of the early twentieth century were similarly interested in incorporating Haitian characteristics before Price-Mars published his Ainsi parla l'oncle. These composers practiced a form of musical ethnography that had specific goals and processes, some of which anticipated the ethnographic approaches Price-Mars promoted in the 1930s.

The most important technique of the composer was rechèch (research). The research techniques of Haitian composers included a form of fieldwork in which composers collected material for their compositions during sojourns either in the countryside or on the streets of Port-au-Prince. For these composers, all members of the Haitian elite, music was a raw material to be molded by the skilled hands of the composer.

Rechèch trips were rarely planned; elites circulated in the countryside, pursuing a vigorous constitutional or some other amusement, like hunting or fishing. On one such trip to a rural area in Haiti in 1920, Jean Price-Mars had an impromptu encounter with a group of Haitians performing a Vodou ceremony. While out on horseback hunting for wild game, Price-Mars stumbled upon a ceremony in progress, much to the dismay of the participants. Both he and his surprised hosts had reason to be apprehensive about his discovery:

I interrupted a legally forbidden ceremony and my clothes were a principal reason for my mistake that caused the participants of the ceremony to scatter. In effect, clothed in a horseback-riding outfit, wearing a khaki helmet, legs encased in a yellow flannel, a gun in a bandolier, I resembled an officer in the rural police force. Thus my initial attempt to dissuade the runaways, my engaging pleas, failed to inspire their confidence and I was unable to ascertain the principal elements of the celebration and what it was celebrating. (Price-Mars 1938, 21)

While Price-Mars eventually gained access to Vodou ceremonies, which were the focus of his ethnographic interests, most Haitian elites' experience with Vodou as practiced in the countryside was more akin to Price-Mars's first exposure: an unsettling, frightening, and vaguely dangerous encounter with people who feared reprisals.

Most Haitian elites, however, did not have to go on expeditions to hear music of the Vodou ceremony. In many cases, the folk songs that composers heard in Haiti were already familiar to them from their own experiences. Despite the fact that over 70 percent of the Haitian population lived in countryside in the early twentieth century, abitan (rural workers) had a ubiquitous presence in urban life. The U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, with its corvée, or work gangs, and its repression of rural resistance, forced large numbers of abitan to the urban areas, especially Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien. Abitan worked in the homes of the urban elite as maids, gardeners, house servants, and cooks. Children growing up in these elite households were exposed to the stories, legends, and folksongs mentioned in Price-Mars's Ainsi parla l'oncle without having to leave the house (Victor 1943).

Another locus of folkloric exposure among elites was the summer home. For those elites who could afford more than one dwelling, the hot Haitian summers were often spent in the mountains east of Port-au-Prince. The towns of Kenscoff and Furcy, both around 1,000 meters above sea level, provided relief from the dirt and heat of the city and gave elites opportunities to mingle with each other. Lyonel Paquin claims that Kenscoff was an important social center for Haitian elites: "Kenscoff had many purposes: to restore health, and maintain the homogeneity of the class. Every Mulatto of importance and status had a summer home there" (Paquin 1983, 224). As an important component of elite social life, a vacation in Kenscoff provided an investment in the social future of the elite family. Sunday promenades in the countryside provided exposure to rural workers in their natural setting, giving elites an image of life as they imagined it was lived in the Haitian countryside.

Kenscoff also provided elite society with an extreme example of the class inequalities in Haiti. Writers and musicians came to Kenscoff not so much to collect songs and stories but to absorb the ambiance of lower-class life and to experience what it was like for less fortunate members of Haitian society, albeit in a controlled and comfortable way. Haitian poet Andre Liautaud's 1928 poem, "O Beaux Soirs de Kenscoff" (O Beautiful Evenings of Kenscoff), evoked the surreal atmosphere of the mountain town. The poem's speaker, lying upon his natte, or woven sleeping mat, hears the voice of an abitan calling his dogs through the fog that is "thick enough to be parted with a cutlass":

His voice has the strange rhythm of Vaudou, And to hear his songs trailing along in his rasping throat We quiver at the deep feeling we share Like a faint tremor of our mutual ancestry. (Liautaud 1928/1971, 23)

According to this poem, the speaker and the abitan are joined by their shared Haitian ancestry. However, it takes the rattling in the abitan's throat to set off the "quiver of deep feeling" in the writer. The two men, while socially distant from one another and physically separated, commune with each other through the "strange rhythm of Vaudou." Also, notice that the abitan is not necessarily singing a Vodou song; the writer's "deep feeling" is triggered by the sound of the abitan's voice alone, for that voice, the writer imagines, has been formed by the abitan's long experience with Vodou.

Other writers penned more indulgent prose that conflated exoticized depictions of Vodou with the sensual pleasures most elites associated with lower-class people, especially women: drinking, dancing, and sex. Jules Blanchet, in his "Cadences Créoles," reminisces about languorous days spent consuming klerin (cane alcohol) and pates (Haitian meat pies), kissing women's "juicy and drooping lips," and singing to the Vodou spirit "Erzulie" (Kreyòl: Ezili), whose association with sensuousness and beauty attract the upper-class Haitian male against his will.

I spent my pocket change drinking klerin Klerin pure and thirst-quenching Eating meat pies, fish and sugar cane Cane fresh and sugary

I wasted my time dancing with women Women supple and lascivious Embracing their bodies and kissing their lips Their lips drooping and juicy

I wasted my time tasting pleasures Pleasures sumptuous and delicate Singing to Erzulie under the red arbor Red with the blood of sacrifices Dancing Congo in a conical rhythm ... (Blanchet 1932, 15)

Blanchet's narrator is a flâneur, someone who strolls about town without plan or aim; in Haitian Kreyòl, a flâneur is said to "pa gen pwogram" (have no program or schedule). Significantly, while the crowd enlivens the flâneur, he (the flâneur is gendered male) is not a moun lari (street person); he is a member of the bourgeoisie.

In the context of Blanchet's verse, the flâneur "wastes his time" by ignoring his class duties and indulging in the carnal pleasures of the street. Klerin, or cane alcohol, is the "poor man's rum" that is often sold by the fresco (shaved ice) push-cart vendor for a few centimes a shot. Pates or meat pies are street food; they are sold by itinerant vendors who call out "pate" as they wander from house to house. The women described in the poem are also of the street; Haitian prostitutes commonly work the bars in search of patrons and use dancing as a means of solicitation. Finally, Blanchet's flâneur "sings to Erzuile" under the red arbor, turning the Vodou ceremonial song into a drunken anthem to debauchery and decadence and the Vodou religion into an exciting diversion from the flâneur's usual bourgeois existence.

In both of the previous poems, the narrator assumes a bourgeois subjectivity. While there is a tradition of bourgeois ventriloquism in Haitian literature in which upper-class subjects impersonate lower-class protagonists (most notably in the example of Oswald Durand's poem "Choucoune," examined in chapter 2), many of the poems and stories about Haitian lower-class life are told by upper-class people about lower-class subjects. This tradition of speaking for lower-class subjects-as opposed to impersonating them or transcribing their words-characterizes most Haitian composers' attempts to use Haitian peasant culture as artistic inspiration before the U.S. occupation of Haiti. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has observed, there is an inherent difficulty with the interpretation of subaltern subjectivity through discourse produced by and for elites (Spivak 1988). However, as the example of Haitian composer Franck Lassègue shows, some composers used Haitian peasant music as a site of appropriation without paying attention to Price-Mars's call to "uplift" peasants through education. For Lassègue, the Haitian peasant was oblivious to his or her status as artistic inspiration for elites.

Franck Lassègue (1890-1940), a Haitian amateur musicologist and composer who lived most of his adult life in Paris, wrote several works on Haitian culture that cultivated the image of the Haitian composer who suffered for his art. In 1919, before Lassègue's departure for Paris, he wrote Etudes critiques sur la musique haïtienne. The Etudes critiques were brief vignettes describing the personal characteristics of some contemporary Haitian composers. Lassègue's descriptions of these composers gave them the power to speak for the Haitian people, even those with whom the composer had no social intercourse. Lassègue likened Haitian composer Ludovic Lamothe's music to the strains of a young woman singing of love or sadness:

To be truly intimate and to open a field of dreams to our imagination, it is best that [music] be, like the waltzes of Mr. Lamothe, a melancholy music, without noise, something tender and sweet that speaks of love or of sadness, a music that addresses itself rather to the heart than the mind, the only music that is able to raise up profound emotions, and to allow the critic to recount the adventures of his soul through a masterpiece. (Lassègue 1919, 16)

At the end of his article about Lamothe, Lassègue begged the readers' indulgence for his free interpretation of the sources of Lamothe's inspiration. His apologies for any misinterpretation of Lamothe's intentions did not diminish Lassègue's presumptions about the importance of the native music critic, especially in cases involving Haitian music.

Lassègue, as a Haitian, felt he had an advantage as music critic by virtue of his knowledge of Haitian culture and music. For Lassègue, music criticism was an exercise based on the fusion of the feelings expressed in a piece of music with incidents from the life of the artist. Lassègue likened musical criticism to poetic analysis; the motifs and phrases themselves were subject to scrutiny and the important elements of the composition would yield themselves to the trained observer (Lassègue 1919, 17). It took a critic who was sufficiently versed in the musical and cultural background of the composer to interpret the composer's message properly.

Another important aspect of the critic's job was to judge music according to external criteria of quality. A song might be a piece of music, but was it beautiful? And, more importantly perhaps, was it art? Beauty in art, according to Lassègue, resided in its ability to make objects capable of inspiring an individual, of "speaking to the heart." The heart that is spoken to, however, was one that was sufficiently "cultivé [et] raffiné" (cultivated and refined):

The sensations of art in a musical page of value are always non-existent for the vulgar crowd ..., I believe that is as difficult for the thrill of the artist to penetrate the crowd as it is for the crowd to feel it. (Lassègue 1919, 22)

According to Lassègue, the crowd, or foule, was incapable of sensing artistic emotions. Only those possessing sufficiently "cultivated and refined" hearts were able to apprehend the technical criteria of beauty (such as musical form and style) and appreciate the artistry of the performance. Without referring directly to the social class of the crowd to which he was referring, Lassègue implied that those persons who did not possess sufficient education to discern the technical proficiency of music were condemned never to understand it. He also saw the crowd as an impenetrable mass that no amount of effort on the part of willing artists could overcome. This belief in the inability of the crowd or masses to feel even those tragedies that befall them gave the musician and critic power over the interpretation of the abitan's suffering as well as exclusive rights to express and appreciate that suffering. Lassègue's essay epitomizes the ambivalent relationship between urban elites and rural workers. Abitan were effectively eliminated from any discussion of the evaluation of musical art through Lassègue's categorization of them as "impenetrable" and "insensitive."


Excerpted from VODOU NATION by MICHAEL LARGEY Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Orthography
Introduction: Performing the Nation: Musical Constructions of Haitian Cultural Identity
1. The Politics of Musical Ethnography: Jean Price-Mars and the Ethnological Movement
2. Recombinant Mythology and the Alchemy of Memory: Occide Jeanty, Ogou, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines
3. Africans and Arawaks: The Music of Ludovic Lamothe and Justin Elie
4. Visions of Vodou in African American Operas about Haiti: Ouanga and Troubled Island
5. Ethnography and Music Ideology: The Music of Werner A. Jaegerhuber
Epilogue: Roots Music and Cultural Memory

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