A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

On the compositional process and how it related to his research:

I spent a lot of time visiting certain regions and certain tribes and listening to the different sounds and the use of language in the music. I was in Mali listening and learning, and I was sitting in a rehearsal. It was fascinating to me the way that Bambara, which is the local dialect that they were singing in…it was interesting to me how the time signature was always based on the text. So a lot of the time, you would have an over-the-bar-line idea because of the text. And I would sit trying to figure it out, and I asked them: “why is it like that? This isn’t really 6/8…I heard a bar of 5 here, a bar of 6”. And then I was told, “oh no, this is all based on the text. So I have to finish the phrase, whether it falls on a bar of 4 or bar of 5. You Americans look at it like this, but for us, it’s all based on the text.” So for me it’s about exploring the rhythm in the language. I try to have the melodies match the feeling and rhythm of the language. And oftentimes, that means writing melodies that go over the bar line. I call that a “textual approach to melody”, which is the way they would do it in Mali or with the Dahomeys or in Benin.

Now, I think the next thing will be exploring East Africa. Going to Ethiopia, to Egypt, Kenya. Because I’ve found some interesting connections, historically and musically between East Africa and West Africa, but that’s for the next excursion.

I used to play in an Ethiopian jazz band called the Either/Or Ensemble, and that was really my introduction to African music in general. I got to play with the great Mulatu Astatke, and I’m actually featured on one of his albums. The band got to travel to Ethiopia and it was an amazing experience, and that was my first time playing that music. And I found that influence in Togo. Vodoo music in Togo uses that same scale called the Anchihoye. So I’m kind of intrigued. How did that mode get from Ethiopia to Togo?

On Haitian saxophonists that inspired Godwin:

I grew up listening to a lot of this Haitian saxophonist named Webert Sicot. He was known as the Siwel saxophonist. It’s sort of like the Caribbean or Haitian version of a Trad-Jazz or Dixieland style of playing. Sort of like Louis Armstrong in the way that Louis Armstrong emotes on the trumpet: all those beautiful melodic ideas. That’s called a Siwel. And I grew up listening to that kind of sound and that super-melodic way of soloing, and Webert Sicot was one of the kings of that sound. So I was learning a lot of this language through Webert Sicot without even knowing what it was. Webert Sicot was the king of a genre called Cadence Rampa that was influenced by the French Antilles, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica. He was actually Nemours Jean-Baptiste’s [ the popular Haitian tenor saxophonist and bandleader] rival. Nemours Jean-Baptiste carved out the Compa genre as his own, so Webert Sicot decided to start his own style called Cadence Rampa. And they both are amazing musicians of course, but in terms of marketing, they decided to go their separate ways. Cadence Rampa was more French Antillean. But Compa became the music of the people because of the lyrics and accessible sound.

On his work with the nonprofit eXperience Ayiti:

With eXperience Ayiti, it’s about the idea of bringing the arts to Haiti. In my research, I noticed that a lot of people had spent time exploring Cuba and Brazil, and they always talk about Haiti but they’ve never been to Haiti. And as a first generation American of Haitian descent, I’ve made it a point to lead the pack in terms of exploring Haiti. This past trip was our second year. The idea is to bring visibility to the arts in Haiti. We’ve been fortunate to have people like Aaron Goldberg, Bennie Wallace, Etienne Charles, Charles Goold, Melanie Charles, Allan Mednard, and Michael Feinberg on board. This will be our third year so we plan on opening it up even more. The goal is to bring arts aficionados, journalists, filmmakers, and composers to go and experience Haiti.

There’s also a large service component. We have an instrument drive, that brings together desperately needed donations of instruments. I believe there are only two or three upright basses in Haiti, and they’re all privately owned. In terms of grand pianos, there are probably only four or five. So the goal ultimately is to bring an upright bass to each of the ten departments of Haiti. And I want musicians to come to Haiti and to perform, not just in the capital and the French colonial cities like Jacmel, but to perform in all of the regions of Haiti. Every December I lead a trip down there. We do master classes in different parts of Haiti where we’re supporting the local music, and then at the end, we do a concert featuring some of the musicians in Haiti, sort of like an exchange.

What’s on the horizon:

I’m recording the album Global, in three weeks, on March 21st and 22nd. It’s coming out on a brand new label that’s putting out some amazing records called Blue Room Music. The album should be coming out on August 10th. It features Joel Ross on vibes, Axel Tosca Laugart on piano, Billy Buss on trumpet, Markus Schwartz on percussion, Hogyu Hwang on Bass, and also Jonathan Michel on Bass, Obed Calvaire on drums, and a few special guests.

The Godwin Louis Sextet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, March 10, 2018. The group features Mr. Louis on alto saxophone, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Joel Ross on vibes, Victor Gould on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, Jonathan Barber on drums, and special guests Markus Schwartz on percussion and Pauline Jean on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.