By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Besides the irresistible dance-floor groove of Haitian compas, another musical style that combined seemingly disparate elements such as vodou rhythms and rock guitar emerged in the '80s as rasin (roots music). Popularized by groups like Boukman Eksperyans, Samba Yo, and later by Boukan Guinen, rasin's lyrics addressed a wide range of political and social issues, including government corruption and repression, and with its powerful and complex rhythms, it eventually grew to rival compas in popularity at the Haitian kanaval. The signing of several rasin bands to U.S. labels (and those groups' extensive touring) has resulted in an exposure of the music to a large non-Haitian audience worldwide. It has also opened the door to further musical experimentation.
A fine example of such musical synthesis is Oneness from Wawa Sylvestre and his Oneness Kingdom band. Not strictly Haitian music, the overall sound is rather "tropically unique" as the CD's liner notes suggest, an agreeable blend of Caribbean styles that never loses a Haitian identity. There is enough variety here to appeal to fans of rasin yet enough English lyrics (and some pretty monster grooves) to make the music accessible to a wide audience.
A female chorus gives just the right touch of rural creole roots to the catchy opener, "Haiti," (a wake-up call to the plight of the nation) and to "Voyem'm Alle," a neotraditional folk melody about a guy laid up sick in the hospital. He doesn't need medicine but rather to be sent home to his island and its simple pleasures. My favorite cut, "Mighty Oneness," with its pulsating bass and gospel chorus intro, is a high-energy scorcher somewhat reminiscent of Ziggy Marley's groundbreaking late '80s release, Jahmekya.
On "Poor Man" Sylvestre becomes the medium through which the homeless outcast, the sans famille speaks. Derided by society, this man still respects himself and demands the same from those who would push him aside; in his own words he has "great personality." Again the female vocals are used effectively to reinforce and embellish the melody. "Clean Up Your Back Yard" is a thinly disguised message aimed at U.S. foreign policy and the constant meddling in smaller countries' affairs. The thoughtful lyrics are supported by a pumping bass line, punchy horns, and a sophisticated vocal delivery. "Everything's Upside Down" is an interesting take on the Haitian classic "Panamam'm Tombe" with English lyrics.
Although at times Sylvestre's vocals waver a bit, and there is an occasional awkwardness with the English delivery, these aspects are reduced to mere idiosyncrasies beside the honesty and insight of the lyrics, the strength of the rhythms, and an overall one-world feeling. This CD has the added distinction of being produced in California, making it a decided rarity in an industry dominated by either Port-au-Prince or U.S. cities like Miami, New York City, or Boston. I'm reluctant to compare bands, but I'll say that fans of RAM's progressive vodou-rock sound will definitely enjoy Oneness and then some.