The aptly named Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra can trace its origins to a concept dreamt up by Corinne Micaelli, the director of the French Institute in Haiti. Micaelli wanted to invite legendary Afrobeat pioneer and renowned drummer Tony Allen to Haiti with the idea that he would perform with some of the island nation’s best musicians at a major live music festival — with the idea of bridging the sounds of the African Diaspora. Once Allen agreed to the idea, Erol Josué, a renowned vocalist, dancer, voodoo priest and direct of the Haitian National Bureau of Ethnology helped to recruit local percussionists, vocalists and others. Micaelli, Allen and Josué all agreed that they wanted to have a fair representation of Haiti’s music and culture, so they recruited musicians from a wide cross-section of the country’s foremost and beloved bands including Racine Mapou de Azor, Josué’s own band RAM, Yizra ‘El Band, Lakou Mizik and from the backing band of Samba Zao, one of Haiti’s most renowned percussionists and traditional vocalists.
When Allen arrived in Haiti, the Afrobeat pioneer and the collection of Haitian musicians had five days to compose and rehearse the material that they were set to perform at La Fête de la Musique, located in Port-au-Prince‘s main square and broadcast live throughout the country. As the Orchestra’s guitarist Mark Mulholland recalls in press notes “Putting it together was complete chaos. Madness. We were all in this tiny room, playing. We had 10 percussionists from all of Haiti’s top bands. Then there was Tony, Olaf Hund on keyboards, and Jean-Philippe Dary, an old friend of Tony’s, on bass. He became the de facto musical director. The sound was overwhelming.” The Orchestra’s material grew organically out of lengthy jam sessions — some initiated by Allen and the other musicians, built around Allen’s famed Afrobeat rhythms and Dary’s bass grooves. “The other songs came from the Haitian musicians, “Mulholland continued. “They grew out of voodoo rhythms and chants. All we had to do was put in some breaks. Honestly, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect to when we began.”
As I mentioned earlier, the result of this collaboration was similar to Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective‘s Roots Before Branches in the sense that the material bridged the sonic and cultural traditions of the diverse and complex African Diaspora in a seamless fashion — but with a highly modern, global take; in fact, some of the material was equally inspired and informed by Krautrock and Sun Ra as it was from the sounds of Lagos and Port-au-Prince. After five days, the members of the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra were set to perform at the Fete La Musique in Port-au-Prince, and the only thing they could really do was hope that it all would work. As the story goes, a few bands had played before the Orchestra and as a result everything was running late. Adding to a greater sense of tenseness, just before they were about to take the stage, someone set off a tear gas grenade, which naturally delayed things further.
Eventually, the Orchestra was able to play. They had hoped to record the set but several technical problems prevented that, and of course with some of the main players leaving town the next morning, there was a sense that the collaboration would just be a one-off performance that a few people in the know would have heard of. However, as Mulholland mentions in press notes “We still had multi-track recordings from the rehearsals though. I decided to go through them and see what I could find. I wasn’t even thinking of releasing it. I just wanted to preserve what we’d done for posterity. We’d achieved something, created something important. It deserved to be remembered. So we re-recorded all the vocals with Erol Josué, Sanba Zao, and the other singers.”
Interestingly as the story goes, Mulholland had relocated to Bamako, Mali in 2014 and as he was getting settled, he ran into Glitterbeat Records head Chris Eckman. Naturally, Mulholland told Eckman about the Afro-Haitian Experiment, of Tony Allen’s involvement and that he had some very raw recordings. Eckman told Mulholland that despite their rawness he’d love to hear the recordings, and Eckman was thoroughly impressed –and he encouraged Mulholland along with Olaf Hund to do proper mixes and mastering on the recordings. As Mulholland proudly says “I think the album [Bade Zile] captures the spirit of all of us together in that room,” Mulholland says proudly. “It’s anarchic and energetic. And I really believe it’s good, it’s honest, it’s new. It’s different. It was an experiment that worked.”
Album title track “Bade Zile” employs the use of propulsive and complex polyrhythms paired with call and response voodoo chants, a driving groove and swirling electronics to craft a sweaty and funky free-flowing jam that subtly nods to reggae and funk while directly and overtly nodding to Afrobeat and traditional Haitian music in dizzying and seamless fashion.
The recently released music video was primarily shot in Port-au-Prince during Fete La Musique and it captures the island nation’s stark poverty, its people’s beauty, dignity and pride, some gorgeous voodoo relics and the musicians of the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra in the rehearsal room and on stage jamming, as well as the audience at the festival rocking out and enjoying the proceedings. And the entire time I watched the video I couldn’t help but be awed by such a proud, beautiful people, who have suffered so greatly.