NEW ORLEANS – It’s no coincidence that the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival has taken the earthquake-ravaged country of Haiti under its wing.
The city and the country share more than just a love of music and culture. They share history and are both survivors, said Richard Morse, lead singer and founder of the Haitian mizik rasin band RAM.
“I like to say New Orleans and Haiti are twin sisters separated at birth,” said Morse who recounted a bit of history behind the Louisiana Purchase during an interview.
Morse said both Haiti and New Orleans were once part of the same French Colony, but in 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States after a successful black slave revolt on what is now Haiti caused him to lose the land for his empire. After his defeat, experts say Napoleon saw holding onto Louisiana as a liability and sold the land to the U.S. for $15 million.
Morse’s band is scheduled to play on the second weekend of the festival and is among several featured as part of this year’s event. Wyclef Jean performed on the fest’s opening day, while the reigning queen of Haitian songs, Emeline Michel, took the stage at Congo Square on Saturday. Others scheduled to perform include Tabou Combo, Djakout (hash)1, and Ti-Coca Wanga-Neges.
Michael Callahan, of Portland, Ore., moved to the rhythms of Boukman Eksperyans on Sunday.
“I’m loving them,” he said of the band. “I love the dancing, the beat, everything. Did you hear what he just said? He said, ‘We have to change the system.’ Man that’s powerful. I love the politics of the music. It’s beautiful.”
On Sunday, the DJA-RaRa (JAH-rah-rah) band paraded through the Fair Grounds Race Course drawing spectators along the route to the festival’s Haitian Pavilion where they put on a show.
“They are contagious aren’t they,” said Sabel Gipson, of New Orleans. “Their spirit and sentiment is so similar to New Orleans’ own second-lines. They so represent the culture and spirit of not only Haitians, but also the African diaspora.”
Gipson, who danced and moved throughout the performance, said the festival’s decision to promote the Haitian culture “is the best thing it’s done in the last few decades.”
“They’re also promoting social awareness and global awareness and showing the world that they’re thinking outside their locale,” she said.
Jeff Jacobs, of San Francisco, enjoyed the performance with his wife, Ghia. “They’re very authentic, high energy and lots of fun,” he said of the group. “I like that they get the audience involved.”
Asked about the festival’s decision to spotlight Haiti, Jacobs said, “It’s definitely an opportunity to provide insight into the Haitian culture.”
Lynn Selby lived in Haiti when the deadly earthquake struck in 2010. “I look at that year as a lost year,” she recalled. “I was pulled from the rubble after my house collapsed on me.”
Selby, who is pursuing a doctorate in social anthropology, said the Haitian culture is one of “strength and resilience.”
“I find it amazing that they still find the space to be loving and kind to each other despite everything that’s happened,” she said. “That’s the spirit that’s conveyed through these kinds of performances.”
Didier Civil, a paper mache artist from Jakmel, Haiti, who now lives in New York, said his festival experience so far has been “one of a kind.”
“It’s definitely a good opportunity for Haitians to show their talents and to show their works to the world,” he said.