RAM, Johnbern Thomas and Javier Colina enchant at PAPJazz, Haiti's Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince

photomorel-29                                                                                                                                                                                    RAM. Credit: Daniel Morel

Two words: bon bagay. That's 'good thing' in Haitian Kreyòl, a phrase you hear everywhere in Port-au-Prince. It's a compliment and an expression of joie de vivre, which, in spite of all they've had to endure, Haitians have in spades. A lot has changed in Haiti's capital since my visit last year. The process of rebuilding, following the devastating earthquake of 2010, continues apace. The crippled National Palace has finally been demolished, ready for reconstruction, and all around the Champ Mars, the city's main square, new structures are rising from their foundations.

PAPJazz, the city's jazz festival, now in its 12th year, is going from strength to strength too – flying the flag for Haiti's underrated music scene and doing its bit to challenge the toxic, reductive view of the country peddled by vulgar man baby presidents and the global ill-informed. It's a very good thing. It's not-for-profit and most of the gigs are free. They also do a huge amount in the way of outreach. Visiting artists give free masterclasses and they've recently set up a music school programme, to train the next generation of Haitian musicians.

There's a wealth of talent in the current generation and this year's line-up had even more Haitian acts on the bill (18, versus 12 visitors). One of the standout performances came from brilliant Haitian drummer Johnbern Thomas, who was presented with a special award for services to jazz in Haiti. On the open-air stage down at Quisqueya University, where most gigs took place, he delivered a blazing set of standards and post-bop originals, drawn from 2017 debut Mèsi, Merci, Thank you, Gracias. The highlight was an insanely syncopated whip through 'Scrapple From The Apple', which brought switches of feel from calypso to latin and racing swing to swaggering half-time funk. Thomas unleashed rim shot hail storms and a trio of superb American guests – pianist Aaron Goldberg, alto player Godwin Louis and trumpeter Darren Barrett – raised the intensity further, vying with one another in epic joint solos.

gtr                                                                                                                                                                        Wesli. Credit: Josué Azor/PAPJazz

Goldberg was on fire again that night, at the afterhours jam. These intimate sessions, held at bars around the city, are a PAPJazz signature. They're a chance to chat to the musicians and they give the festival a sense of community that I haven't experienced anywhere else. The crowds are great here too. They're always so warm and appreciative and there were huge receptions even for less obviously crowd-pleasing acts. A magnificent Spanish trio comprising veteran bassist Javier Colina, guitarist Josemi Carmona and percussionist Bandolero got a well-earned standing ovation for their fusion of bristling flamenco and jazz. They stepped things up a gear for the finisher, Carmona's 'Tangroove', which opened with a theatrical guitar introduction, worked in bluesy solos and climaxed with a storm of sharply-accented chords and cajon wingbeats.

Though it had a core of jazz tradition, this year's bill was also noticeably broader, and did an excellent job of representing the diversity within Haiti's music scene. One of the best crossover sets came from Wesli, a Port-au-Prince born vocalist/guitarist now based in Montreal. Playing tracks from his latest release, ImmiGrand Deluxe, he mixed Afrobeat grooves and silvery soukous guitar riffs with jangling Haitian troubadour styles, funk horn lines, reggae, rap kreyòl and riotous rara carnival music. It was an intoxicating mashup, enhanced by Wesli's boundless on stage charisma.

Follow                                                                                                                                                                  Follow Jah. Credit: Josué Azor/PAPJazz

RAM, perhaps Haiti's best known band internationally and pioneers of the Haitian magpie approach, were better still. Their Friday night headline performance, at Place Boyer, a public square in the suburb of Pétion-Ville, was a tour de force – fusing hypnotic vodou drum patterns, rara horn blasts, yowling rock guitar riffs and enchanting vocals. The atmosphere was electric, with a capacity crowd singing along at the top of their lungs. Rara marching band Follow Jah were there too, stilt-top dancers in tow, hammering their drums, blasting their konet (vuvuzelas made from beaten metal) and buzzing their bass bamboos between sets.

NormanBrown                                                                                                                                                           Norman Brown. Credit: Josué Azor/PAPJazz

Rara is fast becoming an obsession. It's joyful, intoxicating and raw, like the best Balkan brass music or the marching bands of New Orleans. There was a lot more of it on the final night, when the festival moved to Royal Decameron, a resort on an exquisite stretch of coastline north of Port-au-Prince. After an hour of flawless funk from an ultra-tight band led by US guitarist Norman Brown, who vocalised his own lightning fast blues licks and jerking bends, Follow Jah led a delirious rum-fuelled dance party on the beach. A closing DJ set from Port-au-Prince born EDM star Michael Brun, wound up the same way. In the dying minutes, vocalist Steeve Valcourt and rara band Lakou Mizik stormed the stage to play collaborative party track 'Gaya', leading a final rara-driven rave down on the sand when the clattering beats and shuddering beams of sub bass had subsided.

It's moments like that that make PAPJazz one of my favourite jazz festivals anywhere. It has so much character – you couldn't replicate it anywhere else – and it's so much fun. The Haitians say it best: bon bagay.

– Thomas Rees

PAPJazz will return 19-26 January 2019. For more info: www.papjazzhaiti.org/fr/

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