Vieux Farka Toure
The rhythms and incantations of voodoo, the trumpeting of rara carnival music and hearty call-and-response vocal harmonies on their way to galloping, exultant dance grooves ... a nine piece band perfomed solo!
Sunday 15th April 2018, 7.30pm
The HUBS, 6 Paternoster Row, Sheffield
Well the lead up to last week's gig ended up being more exciting than intended! We'd been planning to put on the wonderful 8 piece Lakou Mizik from Haiti on Sunday 15th ... and it had sold out the week before. On Tuesday I started to get signals that all was not right with visas for the band ... and eventually on Thursday morning heard that only the band leader singer/guitarist Steeve Valcourt and manager Zach Miles were going to be able to make it to the UK. Pehaps surprisingly this is the first time we'd been hit with visa problems.
At first I thought that cancellation was the only option. However, I knew that Steeve was a superb musician and well used to playing solo gigs. And knowing the enthusiasm of the TalkingGigs crowd and in recognition that the gigs are about more than just the music, we contacted all ticket holders to see whether we should try to arrange a solo TalkingGig. The instant and hugely positive response showed that the answer was definitely yes! Interestingly, the vast majority of TG "regulars" opted to stick with the gig, with a higher refund rate for those not familiar with the format. I assume that confirms the strength of the format ... and the good instinct of TG goers!
And, I'm so glad that we did go ahead. After discussions with Steeve and Zach, we agreed that the first half should feature both of them on stage, with Steeve playing a couple of songs and also showing a short trailer about Lakou Mizik. It worked really well: having the insights of an expert outsider (Zach) really added to our understanding of Haiti and the band. And Steeve was totally engaging and charming. He told us about his father, Boulo Valcourt who was a musical legend in Haiti - Steeve was even wearing a pair of his shoes (see pics) ... some shoes to fill, it would seem. We learned about the story of how Lakou Mizik came together following the terrible earthquake in 2010. What had started as a way of giving comfort to homeless people eventually became a powerhouse of local musicians. And we also heard about the intricacies of getting visas, which involves Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica ... plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong. Steeve was the only one to have a visa thanks to his journey to the US ... they'd thought he was gointo be the only one who didn't get a visa!
His solo show in the second half was beautiful. Clearly he was never going to be able to reproduce the power and energy of an 8 piece band ... but the songs had a poignance and intimacy that the band would not have achieved.
Feedback from the audience was hugely positive ... with several saying that it was their favourite TalkingGig ever! I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the band may make it back in the Autumn ... they still have valid tickets for the flight. And Steeve and Zach were both charmed by their Sheffield audience, so they are keen. Watch this space!
I'm really grateful to Celia Mather for her wonderful write up of the gig below. It makes me feel as if I was there all over again!
Lakou Mizik: at least Steeve and Zach...!
Well, it wasn't quite the TalkingGig we were anticipating. Visa problems meant that most of Lakou Mizik couldn't make it from Haiti to the UK. Yet still over a hundred and twenty of us turned up to the HUBS in Sheffield to listen to their band leader Steeve Valcourt, joined by producer Zach Niles. And what a night it turned out to be.
Lakou Mizik was formed after the devastating earthquake that hit the island in 2010, deliberately to use Haiti's deep musical traditions to help rebuild a sense of community, hope and pride. Apparently, in Haitian Kreyol "lakou" is where the spirits live; it is "where you are from" , "home" or the "backyard, where people gather to sing and dance, debate or share a meal. Importantly, home is filled by the ancestral spirits of all who were born there. So the band's "mizik" (music) celebrates these deep cultural and spiritual traditions.
Steeve opened with "Ayibobo", an acapella blessing to start the day, with strength, as he later explained. Responding to his beautifully melodic voice, the audience soon joined in with his clapping. Then he was joined on stage by Zach and TG's Charles Ritchie.
Steeve's father Boulo Valcourt was a highly respected musician and Steeve told us that all his life he has been surrounded by the multiple forms of Haitian music, from reggae to compas (or konpa), rara, and more. He studied as a sound engineer in his father's studio, and now teaches sound/music computer programming. Sadly, his father passed away just 3-4 months before this gig, and Steeve was wearing a pair of his father's shoes - in bright gold - which his father had given him to take around the world.
With its history based on colonisation and slavery, Haiti has many cultures mixed together, making it culturally very rich, Steeve said. In terms of rhythms, it has over 100 (though he said he knows only some 10-12!). It is also strong on love and connection between people. "You don't have much but you can create something from nothing. Anything is possible with heart", he commented.
Zach, meanwhile, is from the US. He went to Haiti not long after the earthquake, keen to help support the devastated community, especially through music and film. He has previous experience of this. In 2005, he directed a documentary film "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars" about a band formed by refugees in Guinea after the civil war in their own country in 1991-2002. He became that band's manager, spending some three years with them. "I didn't really want to manage another band", he joked. But then he met Steeve and joined him in developing Lakou Mizik and its mission.
For Zach, Steeve had painted somewhat of "a rosy picture" of Haiti. Certainly, after six years of living there, he appreciates the "wonderful Caribbean people and their spirit", but there are also many struggles. As someone there said to him, "Your history is like a text book. Our history is like an action movie!". Haiti is often misunderstood and misrepresented by the international media, and a key
motivation for Zach is to help bring the "authentic" Haiti to the world.
The visa problem is a case in point, he said. Most people have no idea how difficult it is for Haitians to leave their country. First to get a passport, they have to go on a 10-hour bus ride across the border to the Dominican Republic, costing a lot. Then, for a visa to the UK, they have to send their passport to Jamaica. And wait. In fact, just a few days earlier, after Steeve had been interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC had contacted the UK Home Office, the other band members' visas had just been granted. Steeve's own saga was a bit different. Long story short: he managed to fly to New York and get his visa there. Luckily for us.
Then we watched "Lakou Mizik: the Trailer". (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPNWIs9_deQ) There, as well as Steeve and the other eight members of the band we were missing, we also saw Steeve's father. We got a sense of their rhythms, played on shells and horns as well as guitars and drums. The band is intentionally intergenerational, mixing highly-respected older musicians along
with younger talents, as well as inter-cultural, to celebrate and pass the many heritages: one band member is a specialist in "vodou", another in French "twoubadoo", another has an evangelical Christian background, and so on.
Vodou runs deep in Haitian culture, but more recently has been presented to the younger generation such that they don't want to be involved. However, vodou is not a religion. Steeve said it can be combined with any religion or none. It's a way of living, of saying "thanks" to the water, food, sun, etc. Zach agreed that, in his experience, vodou spirits are "everywhere".
After the earthquake, it was very chaotic: with houses unsafe, everyone was in tents for months. Steeve and a singer friend Jonas Attis wondered what they could do to help. So they started playing music where people gathered. From that the idea developed to form a band, including older and younger generations, from different backgrounds, religions, and so on. But what kind of music to play? "We decided to mix everything: rap with old traditional songs, for example. And it seemed to work. Then Zach arrived and joined in."
For the second number, Steeve got out his guitar and sang us an old, traditional song "Peze Kafe" that he grew up with. He did it in its traditional "twoubadou" style rather than modern, i.e. going "back to the roots". The first verse is about a family which sends a daughter to sell coffee to get money for food, but she gets arrested. Not knowing the rest, he'd had to consult some elders for its meaning. Steeve was later intrigued to hear from a member of Sheffield Socialist Choir that they'd actually sung it at a choral festival in Cuba.
One audience member asked about the role of women musicians. The band's one woman member, Nadine Remy, is a singer. So are they generally just singers or instrumentalists too? They told us that traditionally women were vodou singers and would play one note horns and tambours. Today there are still many women playing "classical" Haitian music. However, as in many places including the UK,
more women want to play in bands than get the opportunity to do so. Another asked about the influence of the Indian community in Haiti, as elsewhere in the Caribbean. Zach said that it is a relatively small and not very visible community, but Steeve added he'd be surprised if their rhythms were not embedded in Haiti's "traditional" music.
In the second half, it was over to Steeve to give us a solo performance. Again, his highly melodic voice came through. In the first number he used a shaker to accompany himself. In the second, he was back on his guitar, with an old song "Tanbou 'n' Frape" - another blessing, expressing happiness to be here. In the third "Fa Ti Bo", he started with a call "Please play the drum" and later told us it was about walking and dancing in the street but not knowing where you are! We got a great sense of just what an accomplished musician he is.
The next one was about the power of drumming: "Every time the drum is beating, our strength doubles: we sing to it, we work to it".
Then he sang one called "Rasanbleman" (from their upcoming album) which he wrote after the earthquake, asking what kind of life to expect. "The sun is rising but the earth won't give me food. So I start praying. Now it has started to rain and I feel hope." Next was one of his father's songs "La Peson’n". At first it sounded like a lament, later picking up in energy. Then came another old vodou song. With no-one there to accompany him on traditional instruments, Steeve said he'd just have to do his best to bring us the energy - which he did with a shaker and by tapping with his father's golden shoes.
Time for the audience to join in. "We all have the same blood, whatever colour we are, wherever we come from", after which he called "Sak Pase?" ("What's up?") and we all replied "Nap Boule!" ("It's all good!"). Which it definitely was. Then back to the shaker for the final song of the set, "Bade Zile", a track from their album (one of Songlines Best Albums of 2016).
The applause was very warm and heart-felt, which Steeve appreciatively said he would take back to Haiti. For his final number, he did their album's title song "Wa Di Yo" ("Go tell them we are still here". ) "And now", he concluded, "you can tell people that you know what Haiti is about. Ayibobo. Thank you."
As some audience members commented afterwards, Steeve is very charismatic, with a lovely personality, and also a great singer and musician. The large number of CD sales spoke volumes too.
Celia Mather - May 2018