There’s a phrase in Haitian Creole — “Yanyan wa manje vyann nan kite zo a” — that translates to “eat the meat, leave the bones.” “You do your time, and you leave the rest of the time for the other generation that comes,” explains Steeve Valcourt, a guitarist and singer in the Haitian roots music eight-piece band Lakou Mizik. “You leave what you did, what you create, what you understand. And that’s where your immortality starts to come through.”
Leave the Bones is the name of Lakou Mizik’s new album, a collaboration with experimental electronic king Joseph Ray, well-known to fans as one-third of UK icons Nero. It’s a fitting title. These 14 tracks, spread across two discs, breathe new life into centuries-old songs. Each two- to six-minute groove represents a traditional chant in Vodou culture, vividly depicted in new dimensions that honor the integral spirit and reflect our digital and international age.
Valcourt and Ray met by chance when the former visited Haiti in 2016. Ray passed by the Artist’s Institute of Haiti school of music and cinema in the southern seaside town of Jacmel. He was brought in as a guest instructor, while Valcourt — having dedicated his life to spreading the magic of Haitian roots music — is a longtime teacher at the school. Lakou Mizik’s manager is the institute’s director, and the manager invited Ray to a Lakou Mizik concert on the beach.
For Ray, the concert was a cultural awakening. “I was blown away,” Ray recalls. “There’s something about those songs where it’s similar in a way to electronic music. It’s nighttime music. You get into a slightly trance-like state. It’s supposed to draw you into it and last quite a long time, ’till 3:00 a.m., and I’m like, ‘Okay, I get it.’ There’s obviously crossover in terms of the feel and the setting of it — and it’s all dance music.”
Sweating in the humid, tropical air, his mind whirring with excitement, Ray approached Valcourt about a collaboration. “It’s a nice idea, because they’re both styles of music that I love,” Valcourt says. “Back in Haiti, everything you do is with music: you’re cleaning, doing dishes, working, you have a music that you’re bumbling. Even when they tuck you to go to bed when you’re a baby, there is a song that you only hear from your grandmother or grandfather’s mouth, and nobody else knows it. With Lakou Mizik, we wanted to take all those songs, because they are part of the tradition and have them bring a new vibe, make sure people now that listen to reggae, dancehall and all this songs from everywhere, can still remember those traditional songs.”
Lakou Mizik comes from a long line of tradition keepers. The band can trace its rhythmic lineage back to the 1800s when, after the revolution, the self-freed slaves formed family compound farms or tribes, called lakous. The lakous allowed for Creole Vodou traditions to thrive, and for centuries, these chants have been kept alive by bands and bards who incorporate their era’s style and stories.
Just as a tree grows from its roots, the Haitian Vodou tradition spreads forth in a myriad of musical directions, with the all-important rhythm beating like a heart. “That’s where you can find that spiritual part,” Valcourt says. “I’m talking about 300 rhythms for more than 300 spirits. Those songs have a spiritual engagement with a Haitian, as long as you were born here.”
For Ray, the journey into the heart of Vodou roots music was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He gathered with Lakou Mizik in the institute studio, and for six months, they taught him the stories of the spirits, rhythms, their ancestors, themselves.
“I found myself just loving all the music, trying to find out what these songs were, and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s this chant about this particular spirit, and that goes with this particular rhythm,’” he says. “This is a whole different way of thinking about music. I was learning the whole time.”
The mantle of such a history was not something Ray carried lightly — once recording finished, he took the sounds home to find any opportunity to marry it with house. “I didn’t realize how little I knew,” he says. “I added some synths in there, and then it just sounded too electronic, so we ended up taking samples of this very traditional Haitian instrument — the conch shell — stretching it out and making it sound more like a synth. That’s a way to honor the culture and the original instruments, and create this more organic feeling.”
Years of careful attention to detail, and assurances from Valcourt and his band that adding a four-four house beat to these traditional tunes was not in fact dishonoring them, led to Leave The Bones, a glorious, moody, celebratory project that blends the old with the new without losing any of Haitian roots music’s intoxicating magic. It moves through peaks and valleys, pulsing with the freedom of a night spent dancing in a dark European warehouse or on golden tropical sands.
“The way I came into it, being exposed to these songs and this culture that was so rich, then to be part of keeping these songs alive,” Ray says. “To think some of these songs are so old and now maybe some people will be dancing to them in a club in wherever, Europe or America, and they might not know what these songs are all, but that doesn’t matter. The feeling will still be there in the songs, and that’s pretty cool to think about it.”
“My goal is to make sure we find a proper way to show the unity of everything,” Valcourt says. “This album for me is my trophy, because I realize one of my goals, which is to make it happen, and then the second goal is to make people listen to it — to understand that everything is one and one is everything. This is my goal and my message, and from this album to the world. Thank you.”
The album is out now on Anjunadeep, and its music videos were directed by professors from the Artist’s Institute, with each tied to a fundraiser to support the local arts community and teach more Haitians the skills of expression. Visit the Artist’s Institute to learn more.