Lakou Mizik is a multigenerational collective of Haitian musicians formed in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake. The group includes elder legends and rising young talents, united in a mission to honor the healing spirit of their collective culture and communicate a message of pride, strength and hope to their countrymen and the world.
Music is at the core of Haiti’s sense of identity, and musicians have always played an important role in society, both in documenting the country’s history and helping to shape its path forward. Today, a young generation of artists is keeping this tradition alive, narrating the tenuous world they live in through music that is made in crowded neighborhoods, remote villages and post-earthquake ghettoes. Lakou Mizik merges these musical generations creating a cultural continuum that uses Haiti’s deep well of creative strength to speak truth to power and to shine a positive light on this chronically misrepresented country.
The idea for the band was hatched in 2010 on a hot November night in Port-au-Prince. Haiti was still reeling from the earthquake, a cholera epidemic was raging, and a political crisis filled the streets with enough tire burning ferocity to close the international airport. Steeve Valcourt, a guitarist and singer whose father was one of the country’s iconic musicians, singer Jonas Attis and American producer Zach Niles met in Valcourt’s muggy basement studio and agreed that Haiti’s music and culture could serve as an antidote to the flood of negativity.
Niles, who had previously been part of the documentary film and management team that introduced Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to the world, had traveled to Haiti to explore ways in which music could help play a role in recovery and empowering social change. According to Niles, “I always wanted to use music and the story of musicians to create a deeper connection to the country than either the one-note negative press or the falsified hope-and-inspiration NGO stories that get pushed to the public.” Niles, Valcourt and Attis assembled an exceptional lineup, creating their own musical A-Team, a powerhouse collective of singers, rara horn players, drummers, guitarists and even an accordionist.
Over the next few years, the band honed their electrifying live show, presenting hours long concerts that blended the soulful spirit of a church revival, the social engagement of a political rally and the trance-inducing intoxication of a vodou ritual. Finally, after building a devoted local fan base, the band headed to the Artists Institute in Jacmel, home to a beautiful new recording studio and music school built by the We Are the World Foundation to help develop Haiti’s music industry.
Two veteran music producers joined the group to help create their debut album: Chris Velan, a Montreal singer-songwriter and producer responsible for producing two albums for Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, and British producer Iestyn Polson, famed for his work with David Gray, David Bowie, Patti Smith and others.
The resulting album, Wa Di Yo, reflected the African, French, Caribbean and U.S. influences that collide in Haiti. The spirit-stirring vodou rhythms and call-and-response vocals were supported by the French café lilt of the accordion. Intricate bass lines and interlocking guitar riffs mesh mesmerizingly with the joyful polyrhythmic hocketing of rara horns. These powerful layers were topped by sing-along melodies with inspiring, socially conscious lyrics. The end result was a soulful stew of deeply danceable grooves that feels strangely familiar yet intensely new — and 100% Haitian.
Wa Di Yo was released by Cumbancha on April 1st, 2016 and both the album and the band’s live shows earned instant praise. After their appearance at the prestigious globalFest event that year, the New York Times wrote, “Lakou Mizik, formed after the devastating Haitian earthquakes of 2010, is a genial cross-generational coalition along the lines of the Buena Vista Social Club. Its songs, some of which are topical, draw on the rhythms and incantations of voodoo, the trumpeting of rara carnival music and hearty call-and-response vocal harmonies on their way to galloping, exultant dance grooves.” The band went on to perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and other important venues. In 2019, influential UK magazine Songlines included Wa Di Yo in their list of the best world music releases of the past five years.
The seed for Lakou Mizik’s second album, HaitiaNola, was planted in 2017 when the band was invited to play the legendary New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was an eye-opening pilgrimage to the mythical music city and the musicians immediately felt connected: the music, the food, the architecture all reflected a shared culture that dates back to the Haitian revolution of 1804. While in New Orleans the band met with producer Eric Heigle through mutual friends from the band Arcade Fire and the idea for HaitiaNola (Haiti & NOLA & Hispaniola = HaitiaNola) was born.
A year later Lakou Mizik was invited back to Jazz Fest for the second time (a rare honor) but this time the focus was on the album and musical collaborations. Even amidst the bustle of the Jazz Fest calendar, the New Orleans guest musicians all made time in their schedules to take part in the unique project. New Orleans legends like Cyril Neville & Preservation Hall Jazz Band gave historical depth to the recording; master funk piano player Jon Cleary married New Orleans-style riffs to the band’s Haitian vodou prayers; rising hop hop star Tank & The Banga’s added NOLA flavored flow, while guitarists Anders Osborne , King James and GRAMMY winners Lost Bayou Ramblers added hair-raising Blues and deep Cajun growl to the Haitian roots music. Haitian-American singer songwriter Leyla McCalla (formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops) brought spine-tingling cello playing; guitar maestro Raja Kassis (Antibalas) sprinkled his six string magic; and the hottest up-and-coming brass band; The Soul Rebels blew the roof off the studio. A second recording session saw Jon Cleary and producer Eric Heigle traveling to Haiti to finalize the recordings back where Lakou Mizik first recorded in 2016.
The result of this creative collaboration gumbo is the upcoming album HaitiaNola, a sweaty celebration that manages to connect not only the rhythms and sounds of the of the two places but also the gritty energy, the unmistakable mysticism and the defiant Mardi Gras spirit of laissez les bon temps roulez (let the good times roll) that persists in both countries. Cumbancha will release the album worldwide on June 21st, 2019.
In Haitian Kreyol the word lakou carries multiple meanings. It can mean the backyard, a gathering place where people come to sing and dance, to debate or share a meal. It also means “home” or “where you are from,” which in Haiti is a place filled by the ancestral spirits of all the others that were born there. With HaitiaNola, Lakou Mizik expands their “lakou,” to take in their cultural cousins and actual descendants in New Orleans. With music to lift them up, these two places have pushed through unimaginable tragedy in recent years – HaitiaNola celebrates this defiantly joyous spirit and the rhythmic roots that have connected them for more than two centuries.