Following a successful slave revolt that ended in the early 19th century, Haiti became history's first black republic. It's no surprise then the Haitian culture that subsequently emerged had a distinct and uncensored African foundation. Drumming, dancing and song were central to the practice of the syncretic vodoun religion, which co-exists alongside Catholicism allover Haiti.
As Haitian music became more secularized, folkloric styles like twobadou (or troubadour), an intimate sound along the lines of American blues or Cuban son, grew in popularity. Throughout the 20th century, such genres as American jazz and African highlife began to be incorporated into Haitian music as bands grew bigger in size and musical patrons more discerning. The 1930s and '40s saw the Haitian government attempting to marginalize vodou practices as part of an "antisuperstition" campaign, but this only led to Haitians determined to celebrate their roots being more resolute in doing so. It eventually became clear that no matter how modern Haitian culture would become, a clear and present African underpinning would remain.
A big-band, African-rooted and eventually globally influenced dance music known as compas emerged and achieved massive popularity. By the 1960s rock 'n' roll entered the picture, and many young Haitians were prompted to cop that style, but by the middle of the decade the mini-jazz sound was born. Named for their smaller size and the rage of fashions like the miniskirt, mini-jazz bands played a hotter version of compas for a generally younger, less gentrified crowd. Further melding of African traditions with European ones was heard in the rara style, a down-home music featuring bamboo horns and rustic percussion played to celebrate the end of the Catholic Lenten season.
In more recent years, soul, funk and rap have made their way into Haiti, but a concurrent emphasis on raciness (roots) has led to the rise of Africanized fusion bands like Boukman Eksperyans (named for slave revolt leader Boukman Dutty), Boukan Ginen and RAM. The racines movement has also seen to it that such legendary figures as guitarist Gesner "Coupe Cloue" Henri, compas pioneer bandleader Nemours Jean-Baptiste and mini-jazz group Tabou Combo (still one of Haiti's finest) rightly retain places of honor in the history of Haitian music.
Today, despite being the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, a land still struggling to recover from the father-and-son Duvalier dictatorships, Haiti continues to produce indomitable, defiantly beautiful music. Tom Orr