Local musician fuses Haitian voodoo with jazz
Jazz saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart always had a little voodoo in him.
Growing up in the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, his mother, a writer, sang voodoo chants she learned from a Haitian friend. The music, Schwarz-Bart said, informed his mother’s strong sense of Caribbean identity.
Still, it wasn’t until Schwarz-Bart, 51, who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and now lives on 116th Street in Harlem, was invited to attend a purification ceremony by a master voodoo priest following the Gnaoua World Music Festival in Morocco that he felt so deeply initiated into voodoo that he could record his own interpretation of the sacred music.
“I’ve been exploring different aspects of my psyche and all my emotions,” said Schwarz-Bart of his musical output before “Jazz Racine Haiti.” “As I was going on album after album visiting different aspects of that source of emotions, it became clear that I had left out something very important, which is voodoo music.”
Schwarz-Bart released his latest album, “Jazz Racine Haiti,” in February, which he will perform as part of the Confetti Jazz Festival at LaMama Experimental Theatre Club on May 1 and May 2. The project combines elements of modern jazz compositions with ritual voodoo chants. Schwarz-Bart recorded the album between New York City and Paris, France, with two different sets of jazz musicians, as well as two voodoo priests who incorporate various languages into the music, including sacred voodoo languages that originated in Nigeria, along with Haitian Creole.
A Haitian religion that’s also found in other parts of the Caribbean, voodoo took root in the region when West African people were brought to the Caribbean during the slave trade. Musical traditions grew and adapted as the religion became prevalent in the slave communities, Schwarz-Bart said.
“Each voodoo tradition of the African diaspora gave birth to a different style of music,” he said, referencing bata drumming during Santeria ceremonies in Cuba, but also noting that voodoo provided a reference for gospel, jazz and blues.
“There’s no musical style today in contemporary music that doesn’t use the blues,” Schwarz-Bart said. “Whether it’s country music, Metallica, rock and roll or just pop music, everybody uses the blues and basically everybody uses voodoo music and voodoo culture, whether they understand it or not.”
Schwarz-Bart said that structurally, voodoo songs are complex; instead of switching between chorus and verse, Haitian voodoo builds on motifs, with several variations and movements, similar to classical and operatic compositions.
“It dawned on me at some point that actually this is a source of jazz,” said Schwarz-Bart. “Anything essential that I find in jazz music I could find the source of it in voodoo chants.”
Dafnis Prieto, a Cuban drummer and composer who now teaches drumming at New York University’s Steinhardt School, sees an obvious influence of West African music traditions on jazz and other American genres.
“The music we do in Cuba is influenced by African music,” Prieto said. “It happens in Caribbean music and Cuban music, it happens in jazz, in American music. That was very evident. I wouldn’t imagine jazz was coming from France. It comes from expression, from the self-expression of people that came from Africa.”
On “Jazz Racine Haiti,” Schwarz-Bart incorporates original compositions with traditional voodoo singing, occasionally creating a call-and-response interaction between voodoo chants and jazz instrumentation, a reference to the link between the two forms. Throughout the recording, regular drum sets are played along with voodoo drums, which are made from hollow tree trunks and played on the record by Gaston Bonga, a voodoo priest.
“Initially, it’s just about sounds and musical energy,” Schwarz-Bart said, “But the whole story is expressed in purely musical terms and mystical terms, rather than a history lesson.”
Still, voodoo chants connect Schwarz-Bart to his Caribbean heritage, just as the music did for his mother more than fifty years ago.
“I feel like this is one of my most precious inheritances,” Schwarz-Bart said.
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