Haiti's lost music



"Rest these eyes, tired of trying not to see... Forget. Memory is pain trying to resurrect itself."
~Fred D’Aguilar

For all the positive attributes and functions of memory – there is often a painful side, especially when accompanied by trauma.



When I came across this piece by PBS about Haiti’s Lost Music (a project that is attempting to promote healing and reconstruction in Haiti by re-introducing Haitians to the music recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1930s), my mind immediately brought me back to Maya Deren – film maker who traveled to Haiti between 1947 and 1954 on a Guggenheim Fellowship and recorded 18,000 feet of Vodoun rituals.

The premise here wasn’t “healing,” but it shows the time, care, investment and patience that must be put into any kind of ethnographical work when you are not native to that particular context both on the front end -- when you are collecting and capturing information -- and on the back end when you are relaying and retelling it.

Deren, a voodoo initiate to the extent that she could be, died before being able to put together the film herself; instead, the footage was incorporated into a posthumous documentary film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. It would have been interesting to see her particular treatment and edits versus the ones utilized by those who themselves weren’t immersed in the collecting process.

Novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston notably practiced this form of immersion [also on a Guggenheim Fellowship], spending time in the American South and in Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930s to research performance rituals. She even played a key role in making it possible for Lomax to be granted access to the ceremonies he would later record. But, imagine Hurston, who spent a comparable amount of time excavating and documenting in Haiti as Lomax and Deren alike, returning to Haiti and brandishing her findings decades later as “healing mechanisms,” as Lomax and company are doing with what they are calling Haiti’s Lost Music -- remastered and all -- from eras bygone?

In order to sidestep what I would call scholarly arrogance, the info seeker and 'relayer' must confront and deconstruct what Cedric Robinson refers to as the “conceits” of a discipline. In this case, I would question the assumption of the transcendence of music as healing mechanism when particular attention hasn’t been paid both to the uniqueness and particular context with which the music was both performed and procured; and the way groups collectively go about coping with trauma. I would question their prescription of “healing” in the form of “repatriated music” – as if it had somehow been lost. I would question the assumption that somehow, after Lomax recorded this music, that it just magically disappeared, to be frank, only to be unearthed and "repatriated" decades later. I would question the arbitrary assignment of that time period – what they refer to as the Haitian Renaissance -- as a time worth returning to, by way of memory. I argue here, primarily, with the romantic suggestion.

Further, from an ethnographical standpoint, the possibility that presenting or reintroducing “memories” (however good they are presumed to be) could potentially exacerbate trauma, especially with the elders, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In writing about the 1937 massacre of Haitian laborers by the Dominican army (please note the year – as this occurs within the same period that the article refers to as a “time of change and hope … and renaissance" in Haiti), novelist Edwidge Danticat confronts the process of remembering and forgetting in the narration of individual and cultural trauma, illuminating the point that, resilience notwithstanding, and though Haiti’s trauma and triumph alike reverberates deep and wide throughout the Diaspora, Haiti's particular cultural memory is a very intimate and deeply rooted thing -- extending far beyond the catastrophic earthquakes of this year.

She writes: “It is perhaps the great discomfort of those trying to silence the world to discover that we have voices sealed inside our heads, voices that with each passing day, grow even louder than the clamor of the world outside. The slaughter is the only thing that is mine enough to pass on. All I want to do is find a place to lay it down now and again, a safe nest where it will neither be scattered by the winds, nor remain forever buried beneath the sod.” (The Farming of Bones)

In another chapter, the main character engages in a form of revisionism with her significant other -- not forgetting, just re-envisioning alternative outcomes for a traumatic event (watching her mother and father drown right in front of her) that simply felt better than how it really happened. A momentary coping mechanism to be sure, but an internally prescribed one, nonetheless.

Recollection and recalling, whether through memory or reintroduction of cultural symbol or artifact (and especially in the presence of trauma), is a complex paradox of pain, pleasure and melancholia at times. At all times, it is to be handled reverently. Further, the healing, if it is to be called that, must be grappled with from within – both individually and collectively. And not a moment too soon.