Saint Domingue was Haiti’s name as a French colony; Cap-Français was Saint Domingue’s Paris of the Antilles. Its main attraction was its Comédie du Cap, a grand theater of 1,500 seats, founded in 1740. There, opera was in high demand. Gluck and Rousseau were both loved. France had just experienced a bright age for music via Louis XIV’s court, with the work of musicians such as Jean-Baptiste Lully. By 1785, music criticism could be found in Haitian papers, notably in the Gazette de Saint Domingue. The first opera in Creole, Jeannot et Thérèse—based on Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village—was composed and performed in 1785. At first, the Opera only admitted whites, but eventually it became popular as a segregated institution. Opera developed local stars, such as the singer Minette, whose life is novelized in Marie Vieux Chauvet’s Dance On The Volcano.
In 1791, the Haitian revolution, first to abolish slavery and then for Haiti’s independence, began. Soon after slavery had been abolished, Toussaint Louverture, formerly enslaved person and leader of the fight to abolish slavery in Saint Domingue, rebuilt Cap-Français’s theater, which had been burned by revolutionaries. Jean-Jacques Dessalines—also once an enslaved person—who led Haiti to its independence, was a great protector of opera. With homes and plantations ablaze during the revolution, he did all that he could to protect the then-colony’s theaters. In other words, Haitian history begins with a deep appreciation for classical music.
During the Haitian revolution, white artists fled Haiti, notably to New Orleans, where they set up the first French-language opera. Opera in Haiti, especially with Minette’s popularity, became dominated by Black artists. Thus began the long tradition of classical music in Haiti that continues today.
Nathalie Joachim’s most recent album, Fanm D’ayiti, is in this lineage. Her family hails from Les Cayes, which had an opera before the Haitian revolution. A flute player, vocalist, and composer educated at Julliard (though she would not categorize herself as a classical musician), her ability to compose and perform in a classical style is undeniable. In tandem with the Spektral Quartet, she explores folk songs, mostly by unknown artists, that Haitian women have performed.
Nathalie considers her music of wide inspiration, including from Erykah Badu and Björk. She organizes both acoustic and electronic sound. “Legba Na Console,” her mesmerizing arrangement of a Haitian Vodou song, is certainly an example of how adept she is at this. A generally upbeat devotional song, close in spirit to early rock and roll, it is made postmodern and meditative through violin and electronics.
Classical music is part of Haiti’s “Gbe.” Gbe is Fon for world (the Fon people are an ethnic tribe of the Gbe, found in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo), and a root of Vodou words such as “Damballah” (Dan-Gbe-Allah), which means snake protector of the world that Allah created. Haitian culture is primarily a devotional culture, similar to Bhakti culture. Candle in hand, a Haitian person devotes themselves to, and is possessed by, the world as it is, a world in which there is undeniable beauty in classical music.
After Dessalines, Henri Christophe, King of Haiti, established a philharmonic, an academy of music, and patronized the opera. Haiti has had a president who was also a classical musician, Louis Borno. He is known for his Hymne du Centenaire. Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, an anti-imperialist revolutionary, notably composed L’Artibonitienne, a patriotic hymn to L’Artibonite, Haiti’s rice basket, appreciated for the valor of its women, its unique cuisine, and home to the most prestigious Vodou temples and the river Artibonite, so beloved by Haitians that is believed to be a deity.
Classical music in Haiti reached its first golden age in the early 1900s. Claude Dauphin, a musicologist and expert on Haitian music, preserves many of the once lost compositions of this golden age at the Société de Recherche et de Diffusion de la Musique Haïtienne. It’s great philharmonic was the Philharmonie de Cap Haïtien, based in the city that was formerly named Cap-Français, now Cap-Haïtien. Pianist Célimène Daudet’s album Haïti, Mon Amour, features the compositions of three of the great musicians of this golden age, Ludovic Lamothe, Edmond Saintonge, and Justin Elie. Daudet performs these compositions without fault. Listening, I thought of my piano teacher Isner Champagne, who before teaching the piano in his retirement was one of Papa Doc’s ambassadors to Germany. I remember him wanting to teach me Beethoven before learning Lamothe. Piano music, especially hymns and meringues, a form of music created by the Haitian military after the revolution, were especially popular during this first golden age, and before the popularity of acoustic guitars.
The second golden age came in the mid-to-late 20th century. Sonatas and cantatas became popular in this period. Some of the musicians are still living. The period’s notable composers are Werner Jaegerhuber, Iphares Blain, and Carmen Brouard. It was a heyday for classical guitar. Amos Coulanges and Frantz Casseus are the most revered classical guitar musicians of a culture that drew hundreds to study the works of Francisco Tárrega, a Spanish composer considered a “father of classical guitar music,” and whose compositions were, and still are, must-learns for aspiring classical musicians. Micheline Laudun Denis and Nicole Saint Victor are respectively the era’s preeminent pianist and soprano. The Ecole St. Trinité was founded during this time and continues to train generations of young Haitians.
A new golden age of Haitian classical music is coming soon, as beautiful as the ones before it. Haitians are a people possessed by the willingness to be enlightened, resplendent selves. In Vodou, one is initiated in order to become that self, aware of the Saint Sun and the laws that govern this world. This self-possession, when faced with despotism, capitalism, racism, sexism, etc., is buttressed by the power of the moon in Haitian culture. Classical musicians are people possessed, and it is they, along with Vodou musicians, who have, as composers, performers, and teachers, defined the often-unattained ideals of Haitian music. Nonetheless, they choose to continue the tradition because it is inherent to their being. It is from embracing both classical music and Vodou music that Haiti’s popular Kompa genre was formed. It is from denying that Haitian music is a monolith, to quote Nathalie Joachim, that one can begin to appreciate Haitian music and Haiti.