[Note: Makandal’s work, like all projects in folklore, dances ploge (intimately) with research. This entry will engage the reader with some intriguing questions on representing Haitian music.]
So a publisher has asked me to write an encyclopedia entry on Haitian music in history, geography, and culture. That should be easy for someone who has published a book and myriad essays on the subject, right? Look again. “Music in history.” I certainly know something about Haitian music of the present, and I’ve listened to recordings going back to the 1930s. But what do I really know of…let’s say, the music of Vodou in the nineteenth century?
In the absence of recordings and transcriptions, what can I assume about the elasticity of those transcendent vibes we call drumming? Can I take for granted that the precious gems we call Vodou songs were cut and polished in Africa and resisted more than a century of travel, curiosity, and the spirit of creativity?
To capture and represent Haitian music in history, maybe I can make comparisons with the musical styles of the places Haitians’ ancestors were born in. Would that work? Why or why not? (Remember that the African slave trade ended in Haiti in 1791.) Perhaps I can study some of the detailed historical descriptions of the dances to theorize how much the dance music has changed, or as little. But…do music and dance evolve at the same speed? If they evolve at all? Some believe that folk traditions are frozen in time, like the little air bubbles in ice that tell us how much carbon the atmosphere held in pre-historic times.
What’s at stake in these ruminations? The answer is nothing less than how the world sees the creative heritage of Haiti: as a museum or as a vibrant and saucy player in the ongoing history of the world. I’ll stop writing and wait for your thoughts and feelings.