This Saturday, March 10th, The Jazz Gallery is excited to welcome Godwin Louis back to our stage. Louis will be presenting music from his forthcoming album Global, a set of compositions that emerged out of research that he performed in Africa and Latin America on the music exported out of Africa, to the rest of the world via the transatlantic slave trade. This research interest emerged, in part, out of the process of composing music based on the connection between Haiti and New Orleans as part of his 2013-2014 Residency Commission at The Jazz Gallery.
A graduate of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance under the leadership of Terrence Blanchard, Louis has gone on to become a powerful voice on the alto saxophone, working as a sideman and studying with luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Mulatu Astatke, Al Foster, Jack DeJohnette, and David Baker, to name a few.
For his upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Godwin will be joined by Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Luques Curtis on bass, Markus Schwartz on percussion, Jonathan Barber on Drums, Victor Gould on piano, and Pauline Jean on vocals. In the lead-up to the show, Godwin chatted with us about his research and the music that has grown out of it for his Global project.
On the process of doing research for his upcoming album Global:
I’ve spent the last seven years exploring that and studying and understanding the connection that was brought to Haiti from West Africa. I’ve gone to Africa five times in the last four years. The music on my upcoming album, Global, is based on the music transported out of Africa, to the rest of the world via the transatlantic slave trade.
This process of exploration began thanks to a grant that The Jazz Gallery gave me to pursue my compositional voice. During that period of 2013-2014, I was noticing a lot of connections between Haiti and New Orleans. I was fortunate enough to live in both places, and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in terms of culture, architecture, even in terms of cuisine, musically, of course. And then historically, I found major connections rooted in the Haitian revolution. In 1790 and 1804, you had a lot of affranchis, free people of color, that fled Haiti to what was then known as French Louisiana. And, of course, they brought their culture and their rhythm. So I was intrigued in that and I began exploring that music, and I presented some of that at the Jazz Gallery in June 2014.
And because of that, I was able to continue to dig even deeper. I went back “across the pond” to Africa to see some of the things that were brought in and how much they’ve changed, and I’ve extended those studies to South America as well.
I began to understand that whenever I see triple meter, that’s something that’s coming from West Africa. So that’s an area that spans from Senegal to Western Nigeria, and back then we would consider that as either Upper or Lower Guinea. In places like Haiti, you hear terms like that, where they’ll say “nég Guinea” meaning, a fella from Guinea. And then also, the other term that you would hear is “nég Kongo” meaning a person from Kongo, meaning a fella from Kongo, which is modern day Cameroon all the way down to Angola. And that’s sort of like “duple meter.” So in West Africa, you have a big triple meter connection, and whenever you see technical things that are in 6/8 or 3/4 , that kind of “Afro” sound that they call it in jazz: “Afro-Cuban”, “Afro-Jazz”….that triple sound is coming from West Africa: Yoruban rhythms, Dahomey, Benin, Togo, Ghana. But whenever we’re dealing with duple meter, which is some of the sounds found in Haiti and New Orleans—you know, Congo Square.
One of the hubs for a lot of the cultures that were transported is Haiti because, in Haiti, there were tribal religions that were preserved. You have rhythms for instance, called Nago, and I found that the Nago rhythm that I always heard in Haiti is actually coming from a tribe in Benin. Nago is pretty a much the Yoruba people in Benin. So if you’re in Nigeria, you’re Yoruban, but if you’re from Benin, you’re Nago. In Haiti, there is a rhythm called Nago, and that’s very similar to what we know today as the swing rhythm. Sort of like when you’re listening to Elvin Jones, that feels to me like a Nago rhythm.
So, the Haitians were able to conserve and preserve some of those rhythms. And also we have Kongo, which is also a rhythm that happens to be a duple meter rhythm, and those roots are coming from Kikongo culture from Central Africa. And then we have rhythms like Yanvalou. All of these rhythms are associated with places in Africa, the names of kings, and so on. So I think because of what the Haitians achieved in gaining independence from slavery, they were able to keep a lot of those rhythms and a lot of those tribal names. Lots of people doing research on the African influence in the United States tend to bypass Haiti, but I really found it to be the hub. The three hubs are Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil in terms of finding that pure connection to Africa. But again, researchers and ethnomusicologists usually go to Cuba and Brazil but don’t know anything about Haiti. So it was interesting for me to connect it all.