The Bass In The Caribbean,Haiti’s Vodou Grooves

By Marlon Bishop ,

Ron FelixTHESE DAYS, MOST NEWS WE HEAR from Haiti is about the ongoing aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that crippled the island nation. There are many other stories about Haiti worth telling, however. Despite the tragedy, Haitians continue to make some of the hottest music in the Caribbean, and there’s plenty for bassists to get excited about. This month, we’ll sample Haiti’s bass treats, from dance bands that give bass players free rein, to roots groups that take sacred rhythms of vodou—the syncretic religion that blends Christianity with West African belief systems—and render them on bass.

Kompa, sometimes written as compas, is the Haitian popular music style par excellence. The four-on-the-floor, upbeat genre was invented in the 1950s, and while it has gone through many changes over the years, it remains hugely popular today—so popular, in fact, that kompa star Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly was elected president of Haiti in March. The sound is something of a combination of merengue from the neighboring Dominican Republic and calypso from Trinidad, plus Earth, Wind & Fire-style horns and a heavy American funk influence in the rhythm section. The recorded songs are up to ten minutes long, and bassists season them with all manner of tasty doublestops and slap licks.

Yves AbelIt wasn’t always that way; in the early days of kompa, bassists were expected to play exclusively what is called the “onetwo”— straight quarter-notes outlining tonic- dominant harmonies. As the story goes, early bandleaders such as Nemours Jean- Baptiste hadn’t yet brought the drum set into the ensemble. The only percussion was timbales and congas, so the bass served the role of the kick drum. “It used to be a really percussive sound,” says Yves “The Fridge” Abel. In 1989, Abel joined Tabou Combo, a top kompa band. He continues to gig with them to this day. “It was boomy, and the notes were not really defined. That’s what people wanted at the time.” Abel grew up in Brooklyn’s Haitian community playing with gospel and R&B bands, and he brought a bigger musical toolbox to the genre. His generation of bassists changed the sound of kompa forever by liberating the bass from the “one-two.” “I couldn’t play the straight quarter-notes—I would fall asleep from boredom,” says Abel with a laugh. “So I started playing lines. I became more like a guitar.”

Example 1, which comes from Abel’s first hit with Tabou Combo, “Aux Antilles,” is a basic kompa line that displays his approach to the music. Longer melodic lines like those in bars 1 and 4 alternate with the quarternote “one-two” pattern (bar 2), allowing the music to have some complexity while remaining danceable, which is of prime importance to Haitian audiences.

Things get quite a bit trickier from there. Example 2 is the intro line from another Tabou Combo song, “Amelie.” Over a background of synth drums, the bass plays a repeated melodic phrase in double-stops high on the neck, while simultaneously slapping the open strings for low-end support. Then there are grooves like Ex. 3, which comes from the long jam-out section in the same song. It’s a highly syncopated, bouncy line with strong melodic characteristics, similar to kompa guitar parts.

The other major movement in Haitian music is called racine, or misik rasin, which means “roots music” in Haitian Creole. It’s a blend of rock, international sounds, and traditional rhythms Haitians use to accompany vodou ceremonies. The style, popularized by bands like RAM and Boukman Eksperyans in the late-’80s euphoria that followed the exile of brutal dictator Jean- Claude Duvalier, often features politically charged lyrics. “The vodou rhythms bring down spirits that possess people, so remember that these are very powerful rhythms,” says Brooklyn-based Ron Felix, a former bassist for Tabou Combo. He also has played with various racine groups and uses traditional vodou rhythms in his own compositions.

The music of Haitian vodou is incredibly complicated. Each family of spirits or gods has its own rhythms and type of drums. Example 4, a racine line Felix plays on his upcoming album Multiplicity, is a bass adaptation of the rhythm played for petwo spirits. The petwo represent the island’s native Taino peoples and the slaves brought to Haiti. They are considered to be aggressive, a trait you can hear in the militaristic vibe of this bass line.

Felix frequently used to tour Haiti with Tabou and other bands; whenever he got the chance, he would take side trips into the countryside to visit ceremonies and research their rhythms. His approach is to take the patterns directly from specifi c drum parts and play them as accurately as possible on the bass. “For me, it was incredible,” he says. “I didn’t grow up knowing about this stuff, so it was a way to get in touch with my roots.”

Example 5 is another Felix line, taken from a traditional carnival style called rara. In rara, a group of musicians play singlenote horns, each tuned to different pitches, in interlocking rhythms. The players come in one at a time, slowly building up a single melodic line out of their combined individual notes, a technique known to musicologists as “hocketting.” Each note in Ex. 5’s slowly evolving bass line represents one of those horns. The secret to executing the line effectively is to conceive of every note as a separate instrument. The percussion staff above represents the kata, or basic rhythmic cell, that the percussion is doing behind the bass line. It’s the organizing principle of the music, a concept much like the Cuban clave.

Felix points out that the traditional rhythms have been evolving for hundreds of years, and that learning how to play them on modern instruments is a slow process. “What we are doing is adding instruments to the rhythms, but without disturbing the rhythm. I believe that the original rhythm should stay intact. It’s not easy to do, but we’re getting closer.”