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WOOD SHED The Bass In The Caribbean Haiti’s Vodou Grooves BY MARLON BISHOP Ron Felix
WOOD SHED The Bass In The Caribbean Haiti’s Vodou Grooves BY MARLON BISHOP Ron Felix
WOOD SHED The Bass In The Caribbean Haiti’s Vodou Grooves BY MARLON BISHOP Ron Felix
WOOD SHED The Bass In The Caribbean Haiti’s Vodou Grooves BY MARLON BISHOP Ron Felix

WOODSHED

The Bass In The Caribbean

Haiti’s Vodou Grooves

BY MARLON BISHOP

Ron Felix Yves Abel
Ron Felix
Yves Abel

THESE DAYS, MOST NEWS WE HEAR from Haiti is about the ongoing aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that crippled the island nation. There are many other sto- ries about Haiti worth telling, however. Despite the tragedy, Haitians continue to make some of the hottest music in the Carib- bean, and there’s plenty for bassists to get excited about. This month, we’ll sample Haiti’s bass treats, from dance bands that give bass players free rein, to roots groups that take sacred rhythms of vodou—the syn- cretic religion that blends Christianity with West African belief systems—and render them on bass. Kompa, sometimes written as compas, is the Haitian popular music style par excellence. The four-on-the-floor, upbeat genre was invented in the 1950s, and while it has gone through many changes over the years, it remains hugely popu- lar today—so popular, in fact, that kompa star Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly was elected president of Haiti in March. The

sound is something of a combination of merengue from the neighboring Domini- can Republic and calypso from Trinidad, plus Earth, Wind & Fire-style horns and a heavy American funk influence in the rhythm section. The recorded songs are up to ten minutes long, and bassists season them with all manner of tasty double- stops and slap licks. It wasn’t always that way; in the early days of kompa, bassists were expected to play exclusively what is called the “one- two”—straight quarter-notes outlining ton- ic-dominant harmonies. As the story goes, early bandleaders such as Nemours Jean- Baptiste hadn’t yet brought the drum set into the ensemble. The only percussion was timbales and congas, so the bass served the role of the kick drum. “It used to be a really percussive sound,” says Yves “The Fridge” Abel. In 1989, Abel joined Tabou Combo, a top kompa band. He continues to gig with them to this day. “It was boomy, and the notes were not really defined. That’s what

MORE ONLINE AT BASSPLAYER.COM/NOVEMBER2011 • Watch Yves Abel play through “Aux Antilles,” “Amelie,” and a
MORE ONLINE AT BASSPLAYER.COM/NOVEMBER2011
• Watch Yves Abel play through “Aux Antilles,” “Amelie,” and a funky
take on the Haitian national anthem at bassplayer.com.
Get down with Tabou Combo in a live performance from 1989.
Swing your hips to a smooth groove courtesy of Haiti’s president,
Sweet Micky.
MORE ONLINE

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Micky. • MORE ONLINE 76 | NOVEMBER 2011 BASSPLAYER.COM people wanted at the time.” Abel grew

people wanted at the time.” Abel grew up in Brooklyn’s Haitian community playing with gospel and R&B bands, and he brought a bigger musical toolbox to the genre. His generation of bassists changed the sound of kompa forever by liberating the bass from the “one-two.” “I couldn’t play the straight quarter-notes—I would fall asleep from boredom,” says Abel with a laugh. “So I started playing lines. I became more like a guitar.” Example 1, which comes from Abel’s first hit with Tabou Combo, “Aux Antilles,” is a basic kompa line that displays his approach to the music. Longer melodic lines like those in bars 1 and 4 alternate with the quarter- note “one-two” pattern (bar 2), allowing the music to have some complexity while remaining danceable, which is of prime importance to Haitian audiences. Things get quite a bit trickier from there. Example 2 is the intro line from another Tabou Combo song, “Amelie.” Over a back- ground of synth drums, the bass plays a

Marlon Bishop is an arts writer and radio pro-

ducer who reports on global music for a num-

ber of media outlets. He covers the arts for

WNYC (New York Public Radio) and produces

radio documentaries for Afropop Worldwide.

WOODSHED

Ex. 1

E7 A E7 A = 110 9 6 9 6 9 6 7 6 7
E7
A
E7
A
=
110
9
6
9
6
9
6
7
6
7
6
7 12 13 12
7
6
9
7
7
7
9
7
9
7
7
5
7
04
5
Ex. 2 7 E7 D D A D D A = 110 13 11 19
Ex. 2
7
E7
D
D
A
D
D
A
=
110
13
11
19
13
11 11 11
14
13
11
19
13
11 11 11
14
13
12
14 18
12 12 12 14 11
14 18
12
12 12 12 14 11
0
0
0
(0)

Ex. 3

E7 A = 110 9 9 11 11 9 9 9 6 7 11 11
E7
A
=
110
9
9
11 11 9
9 9
6
7
11 11 9
7
7
6 7
4
9
97
7

Ex. 4

Em = 94 220 2 02 2 0 220 02 2 0 0 2 2
Em
= 94
220 2
02 2 0
220
02 2 0
0
2
2
0
2
0
3
3
3
0
3
3

Ex. 5

= 135 Am 4x 4x 99 9 7 9 7 9 7 9 7 9
=
135
Am
4x
4x
99
9 7
9 7
9 7
9 7
9 7
9 7
9 7
9 7
9
9
9
7

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3 3 Ex. 5 = 135 Am 4x 4x 99 9 7 9 7 9 7
3 3 Ex. 5 = 135 Am 4x 4x 99 9 7 9 7 9 7
3 3 Ex. 5 = 135 Am 4x 4x 99 9 7 9 7 9 7
WOOD SHED repeated melodic phrase in double-stops high on the neck, while simultaneously slapping the
WOOD SHED repeated melodic phrase in double-stops high on the neck, while simultaneously slapping the
WOOD SHED repeated melodic phrase in double-stops high on the neck, while simultaneously slapping the

WOODSHED

repeated melodic phrase in double-stops high on the neck, while simultaneously slapping the open strings for low-end support. Then there are grooves like Ex. 3, which comes from the long jam-out section in the same song. It’s a highly syncopated, bouncy line with strong melodic characteristics, similar to kompa guitar parts. The other major movement in Haitian

music is called racine, or misik rasin, which means “roots music” in Haitian Creole. It’s

a blend of rock, international sounds, and

traditional rhythms Haitians use to accom-

pany vodou ceremonies. The style, popu-

larized by bands like RAM and Boukman Eksperyans in the late-’80s euphoria that followed the exile of brutal dictator Jean- Claude Duvalier, often features politi- cally charged lyrics. “The vodou rhythms bring down spirits that possess people, so remember that these are very powerful rhythms,” says Brooklyn-based Ron Felix,

a former bassist for Tabou Combo. He also

has played with various racine groups and uses traditional vodou rhythms in his own

racine groups and uses traditional vodou rhythms in his own HAITI’S VOODOO GROOVES compositions. The music

HAITI’S VOODOO GROOVES

compositions. The music of Haitian vodou is incred- ibly complicated. Each family of spirits or gods has its own rhythms and type of drums. Example 4, a racine line Felix plays on his upcoming album Multiplicity, is a bass adap- tation of the rhythm played for petwo spir- its. The petwo represent the island’s native Taino peoples and the slaves brought to Haiti. They are considered to be aggres- sive, a trait you can hear in the militaristic vibe of this bass line. Felix frequently used to tour Haiti with Tabou and other bands; whenever he got the chance, he would take side trips into the countryside to visit ceremonies and research their rhythms. His approach is to take the patterns directly from specific drum parts and play them as accurately as possi- ble on the bass. “For me, it was incredible,” he says. “I didn’t grow up knowing about this stuff, so it was a way to get in touch with my roots.” Example 5 is another Felix line, taken from a traditional carnival style called rara.

In rara, a group of musicians play single- note horns, each tuned to different pitches, in interlocking rhythms. The players come in one at a time, slowly building up a single melodic line out of their combined individ- ual notes, a technique known to musicol- ogists as “hocketting.” Each note in Ex. 5’s slowly evolving bass line represents one of those horns. The secret to executing the line effectively is to conceive of every note as a separate instrument. The percussion staff above represents the kata, or basic rhythmic cell, that the percussion is doing behind the bass line. It’s the organizing prin- ciple of the music, a concept much like the Cuban clave. Felix points out that the traditional rhythms have been evolving for hundreds of years, and that learning how to play them on modern instruments is a slow process. “What we are doing is adding instruments to the rhythms, but without disturbing the rhythm. I believe that the original rhythm should stay intact. It’s not easy to do, but we’re getting closer.” BP

rhythm should stay intact. It’s not easy to do, but we’re getting closer.” B P 78

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rhythm should stay intact. It’s not easy to do, but we’re getting closer.” B P 78