Left to right: Mark Mulholland, Tony Allen, Olaf Hund, and Jean-Philippe Dary / Photo by Bruno Lemonnier, courtesy of Glitterbeat Records
The Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra album almost didn’t happen. In a time when almost every living moment, for purposes of vanity, posterity, or the state, is documented, it can be either liberating or crushing to lose a recording. That is almost what happened in the case of this one-off musical collaboration, the brainchild of Corinne Micaelli, the director of the French Institute in Haiti.
The Orchestra brought together revered Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and a supergroup of some of Haiti’s finest, including roots music pillar Sanba Zao, members of Racine Mapou de Azor, and Erol Josué, director of the Haitian National Bureau of Ethnology. It played just one show, in Port-au-Prince in 2014, which was almost ruined by tear gas and was recorded with the main vocal channel entirely absent. The loss of the recording would have been, if not quite tragic, then extremely fucking sad. But rather than surrendering to the ephemeral whims of the universe, the members of Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra took the band’s raw rehearsal tapes and shaped it into a cohesive album and document.
The resulting self-titled album, available now on Glitterbeat Records, mixes diverse the musical influences of Haiti, Mali, Afrobeat, and UK/French electronica to make an invigorating and hypnotic soundscape that scoffs at borders while embracing the traditions that give some sense to the chaos of life. Guitarist and co-organizer Mark Mulholland was kind enough to answer some questions form his home base in Bamako about the global project and how the album was created.
Noisey: How were the songs written? Were there chief songwriters? Were skeletons of songs composed beforehand, or was it all improv and then shaped by the collective?
Mark Mulholland: There was one practice between the percussionists before Tony and Jean-Phi (Jean-Philippe Dary) arrived, mostly to figure out who was playing which drum, and to get to know each other, as they had never played in this configuration. Sanba Zao was coordinating the Haitian musicians, and a few loose ideas for songs were approximately worked out, mostly based on Zao's repertoire of original and traditional songs and a couple of tunes that Erol sang.
When we started rehearsing, we would alternate between starting with a Haitian rhythm or one of Tony's Afrobeat grooves, and build up from there. The first couple of days were purely jamming, trying things out, getting acquainted, feeling our way around. We did rough recordings of everything, as a reference to go back to, and then we narrowed it down to seven or eight basic ideas, which we then refined into songs. For the songs initiated by Zao or Erol, there was already a basic text and melody, so it was then a matter of making arrangements, with breaks and backing vocals, and I would find a simple riff and improvise around that.
Jean-Phi took on the role of musical director, which was a great help, and he also kept to very simple repetitive bass lines, which became the backbone of the group and the one constant thing you could come back to if things were in danger of going off the rails. For the songs that started with Tony's beats, he gave us a groove, Jean-Phi added a bass line, I would find a few notes around which to base a riff, and the percussionists would play off what Tony was doing.
The singing came towards the end, with Marco, Zikiki, and Mimi improvising vocals. Olaf (Hund) arrived on the second last day, so the basic structures were there, and we bounced melodic ideas off each other. Unfortunately Erol wasn't able to take part in the last day of rehearsals, since as well as his artistic activities he was also the Director of the National Bureau of Ethnology and had work obligations he couldn't avoid, so he doesn't figure on the multi-track recordings.
We all felt, however, that it was important that he should figure on the album, as he had been an integral part of the whole process. I was doing another recording with him at the time, for a song that he was considering using for his own album, and when he came round to record his vocals, I was working on an instrumental track. He immediately asked if he could sing over it, and that's what turned into “Mon ami Tezin.” There was an epidemic of chikungunya at the time, and he had a high fever, which I think actually enhanced the dreamy quality of the singing. “Poze” also came later—Erol came to Olaf's studio in Paris one night after playing a concert and added vocals to an instrumental of Olaf's, and subsequently I added guitar and Tony put drums on both tracks. I'd moved to Mali by that point, and I think that the guitar part probably owes more to the Sahara than the Caribbean.
Tony Allen / Photo by Bruno Lemonnier, courtesy of Glitterbeat Records
As the group draws from a variety of Haitian bands, was there any creative tension between the musicians?
There were several very strong personalities, confined in a small space with the pressure of having only a few days to create a repertoire that combined a bunch of different musical styles, and knock it into shape before playing it on the main square of the town, live on national TV. So the combination of all that was inevitably going to create a certain amount of friction. There was also a lot of rum.
However the fact that everyone, without exception, was forced to abandon their usual comfort zone of what they were accustomed to playing—and to exchange and find an accommodation with musicians that they didn't know—created an energy and creative tension that was very unique.
The one and only show as at least briefly interrupted by a tear gas canister exploded on stage. Was that just overzealous revelers or was it a political act?
There was a strong rumor of which I can't guarantee the veracity—but it does seem plausible—that the tear gas incident was due to the fact that there was another event at the same time not far away which didn't have much audience, and the organizers had a bright idea as to how they could provoke a sudden swell in their crowd. We did lose a portion of the audience, but once the smoke had cleared a substantial number of them came back, and there was still a decent crowd for the gig.
I imagine it was wildly disappointing that the show couldn’t be recorded. Was there an immediate desire to see what could be salvaged from rehearsal recordings?
Failing to get a decent recording of the concert was disappointing, but that is always a strong possibility when dealing with a one-off event, even in much more orderly settings than Haiti. That was, to some extent, why we did a multi-track recording of the final practices, so when we got back after the gig, Olaf, myself and Jean-Phi, had a quick listen to excerpts of the sessions. What was more disappointing than the gig recording was discovering that the one channel that had not been recorded was the one with the lead vocals, but they were in the background on all the other mics because there was a monitor PA in the room. That meant that to overdub the vocals, they had to be sung the same as the original ones, which were often improvised. There wasn't any trepidation from the singers about overdubs, but there was certainly weariness by the time we got to the end of several days of re-recording it all, phrase by phrase, at my place.
Photo by Bruno Lemonnier, courtesy of Glitterbeat Records
Do you consider the record a successful document of the initial vision or more a triumph in salvaging something great from a complicated recording process?
While there was an initial idea of bringing together all these different disparate elements, I don't think anyone had any notion what the result might be. I think that it captures very well the atmosphere, energy, and spontaneity in a way that, quite possibly, would have been lost or ironed out in a more structured, conventional recording. At the same time, having a straight-forward, clean recording with everything nicely separated on different tracks would have made the mixing, editing and arranging a hell of a lot easier, so there is also a fair amount of satisfaction that we did manage to extract a record that I'm proud of having been involved in from some very rough raw material.
I’m at a disadvantage as being a basic American who only speaks English. What is the general subject matter? Was there any previous discussion of what would be covered, whether it be love or politics or whatever? Were there certain topics that were verboten or unavoidable?
There wasn't any prior discussion about the lyrical content or any subjects off-limits. Quite a few of the tracks are traditional Haitian songs or chants, like “Wongolo,” “Bade Zile,” “Poze,” or “Mon Ami Tezin.” For example, “Mon Ami Tezin” is based on a fable in which a young girl, while collecting water at the river, meets and befriends a magical fish, and from then on the water she brings to her family is delicious, while that which is brought by her brother is not. He becomes jealous and spies on her and discovers her secret and tells his father, who then kills the fish. On realizing what has happened, she bursts into floods of tears, and gradually melts into a puddle of water. “Chay la lou,” the lyrics of which were written by Marco Pierre during the session, means “the burden is heavy” and talks about feelings of regret and guilt.
If the reception for the album is positive, do you think the collective could be convinced to do more? Or would that just be logistically impossible?
It would certainly be logistically challenging, and it would require a fair amount of resources and organization to make it happen, but it's not completely out of the question. The initial very positive reactions that the album has been getting have apparently prompted some inquiries as to the feasibility of putting together some live shows, so if there is enough demand, we'll definitely look into the possibilities.
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.