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.