News, reviews and commentary on afrobeat and related music from Africa, The Caribbean and The Americas

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Boukman Eksperyans '06 Solidarity Tour

By David McDavitt

Haiti’s “Boukman Eksperyans” graced Vienna, Virginia’s Jammin Java with their compelling Vodou-rock music on July 2nd as part of their 2006 Solidarity Tour to support the University of Fondwa 2004 (UNIF), Haiti's first rural University. The band derives their name & ideology from Boukman Dutty, a 19th century slave-revolt leader, Vodou priest, and martyr, whose movement led to the overthrow of the French colonialist government, making Haiti the first black republic. Following their hero’s spirit of revolution, Boukman Eksperyans’ songs denouncing oppression resulted in being deported from Haiti and even purportedly, shot at on stage.

Boukman Eksperyans was formed in the late 1980’s by husband & wife Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun, Jr. and Mimerose Beaubrun (an anthropologist). In an effort to eschew their unfulfilling material-based, privileged life, they joined a Lakous (African-style family commune) & discovered their cultural roots, including Vodou spirituality & music. Seeking to celebrate, inspire, & educate, the Beaubruns formed Boukman Eksperyans with family members and friends, spreading their message in native Creole, as well as French.

The heart of Boukman Eksperyans’ sound is Vodou religious music, specifically ensemble drum patterns that honor & invoke the Loa (spirits). Unfortunately Vodou has historically been maligned by the stereotyping, racism, classism, misconceptions, and religious bigotry that has plagued African-based religions since the colonial slave trade. Vodou (“spirit”) is a religion that originated among the Dahomey & Fon people in present-day Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and Ghana. Like many of the most ancient religions, Vodou is animist (like Shinto) and promotes moral behavior, harmony with the Earth, peace, and appeals for health and fertile crops. In Vodou, there is only one god, “Bondye”, and a pantheon of lesser “spirits” (Loa) whom the people care for and venerate. The ultimate goal in Vodou is to achieve “Ginen” (ultimate state of enlightenment & peace, to serve love at all times). Music is a crucial component of Vodou practice. There are two contexts/forms of Vodou music: Rada (the family of formal, “cool” even-tempered spirits of Dahomean origin: cowhide headed drums played with sticks, rigid structures, carnival music), and Petwo (the family of impetuous, rebellious “hot” Loa of ‘Kongo’ origin: goat-skin headed drums played with hands, looser feel, more aggressive).

Boukman Eksperyans was at the forefront of a new style of music in the early 1990’s, “mizik rasin” (roots music), a scintillating blend of reggae, rock, funk, and Afropop styles with traditional Vodou harmonic progressions, rhythms, drums, and structures. Their highly signature sound is one of the strongest in the rasin genre. BE has the enviable talent of projecting seemingly contradictory elements: simple catchy Vodou melodies with complex backing rhythms, intense heavy grooves with light falsetto vocal tones, familiar poppy refrains with excitingly exotic percussion & lyrics, pop appeal with spiritual & revolutionary messages.

Boukman Eksperyans’ live performance is powerful! Featuring 4-5 original (“Revolution” CD or prior) members, and a backing band of hungry young reggae musicians, BE closely replicates their recorded sound, surpassing it in some cases with live energy. One puzzling decision was the lack of a keyboardist. Boukman played many songs sans keys, while others were covered using an uncharacteristically amateurish sequencer/drum machine (fortunately, a musician played drum kit on most songs).

BE’s first set was the most Haitian/Vodou: pulling in great part from the powerful “Revolution” album. Incorporating mostly 6/8 rada drumming/songs, the set included many traditional Vodou songs venerating the Loa. The huge lead “maman” drum played the central role, floating atop a bubbling wave of polyrhythmic support drums, providing an undeniable tribal dance impetus. Hum-worthy bass lines, and ethereal falsetto vocals that haunt one’s dreams deliver messages of peace, justice, peace, and hope. This is beautiful music that delivers its message even if you don’t understand the Creole, French, or English it’s being delivered in. Highlights were Gran Bwa Ile (Nago initiation song), Tipa Tipa (denouncing greedy politicians, rada), Imamou Lele (voc/drum only Loa’s lament about industrialization’s destruction of nature), Libete (Jesus/Loa have given us freedom) & Nou Pa Vle Lage (We don’t want war).

The second set was simultaneously more Petwo and internationally inspired: incorporating more hand-drumming (a detuned djembe replacing the more traditional Petwo lead drum), and more Afropop, rock, and reggae. BE announced that this set would be the strongest. The 4/4 songs were simpler in structure, but still incorporated complex backing percussion. While undeniably catchy, faster, danceable, this set was ultimately less unique, less Haitian/Vodou and less interesting than the first.

Instrumentation included 3 vocalists (one playing ogan bell, one playing tchatcha shaker), a set of 3 Rada drums (maman, segon, boula), Petwo drum (baka) or djembe, drum kit, 2 guitars, bass guitar, racine Vodou trumpet, and keyboard/drum machine sequencer.

Boukman Ekesperyance’s current tour has an ulterior motive: to generate support for a fledgling people’s college in rural Haiti. The University of Fondwa, located in the mountains south of Port au Prince, opened in 2004 to train peasants from all over the country to become leaders in the “sustainable development of their own communities”. The university teaches agronomy, microeconomics, veterinary medicine, all in the local Creole, hoping to usher in grassroots progress and success.


  1. Dan Berhman is an old time music lifer I met 2-3 years ago on his radio show. A european jew who emigrated to NY in the 60's and then moved on to Montreal, he became that citys world music expert these past 3 decades having been a radio personality, booker for the Montreal Jazz Fest and artist manager.
    He told me of the times he spent on the road with the Boukman crew as some of the most enjoyable in his career. Not because of the travels but the people involved. For every 10 prima donna jazz songstress you have the misfortune of crossing, you get a social interaction like Boukman which makes it all worth it. THAT to me is bigger compliment than any sales or prizes can bring. Mr. Berhman also was the first manager of La Chango Family, a fine young 12 piece world beat orchestra which blends reggae, gypsy violin, latin rhythms and afrobeat in one and sing songs in french, english, spanish and wolof. I actually discovered them in Spain where they appeared on a Barcelona compilation with Manu Chao, Fermin Muguruza and others doing an ode to Senegal titled "Amoul Solo" which was sung in wolof-french. Worth listening if you like amalgams of styles and understand french and spanish (most songs use 3 languages).

    After the violent overthrowing of a government in Haiti and the opportunism of "stars" like Wyclef 'my uncle is Raymond Joseph' Jean, it is nice to see Boukmans doing something to help educate the poor of Haiti. It is not a surprise that the only medical faculty was taken over by the occupying forces after the coup: the best way to keep the poor oppresed is to keep them uneducated.

    Hopefully, Boukmans is too big in their country to suffer the fate of others who have tried to help the poor and we can only hope the succeed.


  2. Good call highlighting Boukmans. I got turned on to them in the last year and have them on heavy iTunes rotation. If readers are intruiged, I strongly recommend the live album: "Live at Red Rocks," downloadable via iTunes (but not on Amazon).