Alan Lomax in Haiti
When 21-year-old Alan Lomax dragged 155 pounds of luggage and recording equipment into the heat and humanity of Port-au-Prince’s dockside, he entered a crucible. In the Christmas season of 1936, Haiti was re-forging a national identity after a 15-year U.S. occupation. The island nation was discovering the roots of its rural culture in Africa, struggling to reconcile the class and race issues arising from a mixed French, Spanish and African heritage, and the cosmopolitan urban culture and folk traditions of the rural poor. Lomax, too, was coming of age in his first solo venture in ethnography, while wrestling with emotional uncertainty, romantic longing, technical challenges, sickness, and financial woes. On November 17, Harte Recordings will release Alan Lomax in Haiti, a 10-CD audio and video box set that reveals for the first time the musical and cultural fruits of that national and personal struggle.
Lomax entered a society stressed by poverty and occupation. The United States took control of Haiti in 1915 to patrol sea-lanes to the Panama Canal on the eve of WWI and to preserve order for the sugar companies. In 1936, the Marines had withdrawn just two years before, leaving behind a fragile representative government. The new independence also stimulated interest in folkloric traditions, as expressed in the indigène movement and the work of Haitian classical composer Ludovic Lamothe (his only recorded performances of his own work are on the set’s first disc). Though officially outlawed, Voudou music and ceremonies attracted sensationalists in the late 1920s and early 30s, such as Hollywood zombie-movie maker William Seabrook — which provoked an understandable mistrust of the ethnographers who followed.
Haiti in the 1930s was a magnet for scholars and ethnographers such as Lomax who were pursuing the trail of African-American culture to its sources in Africa. The lighter-skinned, urban upper classes identified with French culture and Catholicism, while the separateness of the undeveloped rural countryside that was home to Haiti’s masses allowed African expressions to flourish and hybridize with European elements. That relatively untouched terrain brought anthropologist Melville Herskovits, dancer and writer Katherine Dunham, author (and Lomax collaborator) Zora Neale Hurston, and several other researchers, including George Simpson and Harold Courlander, to Haiti during this period. Both in the United States and abroad, the late 1930s ushered in a new era of exploration of indigenous culture, folklore and the expressions of the rural poor. The shared experience of the global Depression created fellow feeling and interest in the lives and accomplishments of ordinary people. In the U.S., these realities were being documented by artists and writers employed by U.S. Federal programs. Previous expeditions to Haiti resulted in rich descriptions; Lomax brought back sounds and images, allowing them speak to us directly.
Lomax came to Haiti under the auspices of the Music Division of the Library of Congress. The young man was already well-traveled and experienced, having begun, while still a teenager, to assist his father, John Avery Lomax, in a major effort to record African-American folk music in the U.S. Later he collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston and NYU professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle on field expeditions to the Georgia Sea Islands and migrant labor camps in Florida. Those trips pointed Lomax to the Bahamas in 1935 and then to Haiti, encouraged by Hurston, and funded, if minimally, by the Library.
As the extensive and illuminating books included in the box set make clear, Lomax was confronted with scenes surpassing any he’d witnessed in even the most poverty-stricken districts of his own country. Lomax’s Haiti diaries, edited by Ellen Harold, contain many evocative passages: “This morning on the mountain I walked through the whole of the lives of millions of people on the earth. A woman in a blue dress and holding her baby sat on the hard, clean, white clay of her front yard, while her man sat at the corner of their one-room hut, made of the wood, the straw, the palm leaves of that same mountain, leaned and smoked his pipe and did not look at the woman but at the fat nanny goat baaing around the corner. Down the street a little fox-terrier puppy say and shivered in the sun, ill with the disease of hunger; and all the dogs here are like that, thin and whining and shivering. I have the feeling that they and their masters mutually hate each other; they are competitors for the food supply.”
Lomax complained little to his diary, reserving his energies for detailed descriptions of what he saw, but he let us glimpse his troubles: the obstacles thrown up by the Haitian bureaucracy and the near-constant requests for payment against his almost total lack of means; the lack of discs for recording; the technical limitations of his equipment (this was the last time he would use the aluminum disc-cutting recorders); debilitating fevers and dysentery resulting from malaria. And there was the anguish of separation from his young fiancée, Elizabeth Harold, resolved by an elopement and joyous reunion in Haiti, where they married.
In spite of the challenges, Lomax managed to produce 1,500 recordings (fifty hours of sound) and six films, all of which were deposited in the Library of Congress. There they remained for seventy years, until a project begun by the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive in the late 1990s resulted in preservation work by the Library’s American Folklife Center and The Magic Shop in New York. The aluminum discs were transferred at the Library’s Sound Lab in March, 2000. The medium was not ideal, as Matt Barton, the Library’s curator of sound describes: “The twelve-inch aluminum discs they used for most of these recordings could only hold about five minutes of sound comfortably, but often, they simply had to hold more. On many discs, Brad and I saw that they had allowed the recording head to keep tracking to within barely an inch of the hole in the center of the disc. This reduced the fidelity and created untold technical headaches more than sixty years after the recordings were made, but in this way, a few seconds, perhaps even a full minute more of priceless documentary recording was accomplished.” The transferred files arrived at the Magic Shop in 2006, where Steve Rosenthal and Warren Russell-Smith applied digital technology to tease out the sound from the ambient noise and what Russell-Smith calls “the coughing and wheezing of Alan Lomax’s 1930s recording equipment.” The entire collection was mastered using even more advanced tools in summer of 2009.
In addition to producing the box set, ACE will repatriate the entire collection to Haiti, completely restored and remastered. There, they hope to work with local people and institutions to ensure that it is used and disseminated. As a result of its sponsorship by the Green Family Foundation of Miami, which is involved in humanitarian work in Haiti, the project has been made part of the Clinton Global Initiative in Haiti.