If Gifrants were talking to someone who just had an inkling about Haitian music, and had to introduce them to recordings that he felt captured the essence of what Haitian music is all about, he would know exactly where to begin. Giftrants, a musical veteran, whose career spans several decades, has recorded several albums, including his latest Mwen Damou Yon Nègès Anvoute.
Born Marcien Guy-Frantz Toussaint to Marie-Thérèse Valcourt and Jean-Baptiste Bien-Aimé Toussaint, the musician immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. He says that upon his arrival to the United States, some folks could not manage to pronounce his name. They would call him Martian, Marceau and Marcel, so he decided to adopt the Creole spelling of his name—pronounced Gee-Frans.
So, rejoice Kreyolicious.com readers. If you’ve been waiting on a primer on Haitian music, Gifrants is your humble and knowledgeable servant.
If you could, relax your mind for a bit. Think back to your childhood. What are some of the images that you see in your mind?
I was a very quiet boy who watched people live without being judgmental and strongly determined to learn about his environment. Yet, I felt that I was a little different from the usual Joe. I never used that difference as a weapon, and I always believed that it was a privilege that comes with tremendous responsibilities to be able to understand, hear and see what most people would not.
The other images that really stuck with me and shaped the core of my personality are my days during a few summer vacations from the age of eight to twelve in our lakou [community compound. My great-grandmother died at the age of 108. She was very quiet and the elder of the lakou that had and still has its own “Protector” whom a house was built for. In other words, I have to say that I am a “sèvitè Ginen” though I do not practice and see Voodoo the way it is being conventionally practiced and understood—no images of Lwa for me, no solobodjo or manje lwa or no prayers to the lwas. Still, I have been baptized much later on and given the key of the house of the “Protector.” I was really loved by my great-grandmother, grand-aunt, many people in this lakou and specially Ton De, a very affable man, who would leave me on the top of the cactus next to our house many fruits——mangos, papaya and sometimes crabs. Those crabs do not live in water, but in holes on the peasant’s land or “abitasyon.” There was a lagoon or ma dlo close by where we used to go and swim. Many times, this lagoon would be an kri—that means “overflow” and all we had to do was to bring wide containers or baskets to just pick up the fish——kribish and kabo——shrimp from the river and a this small brown fish we call kabo in Creole. That how was my connection with the peasants and their life started. I was strongly influenced by my grandparents.
How early did music start playing a role in your life?
My father kept saying to me every time we talked that it was my fate to be a musician because I wanted a guitar at the age of three. But, I had to wait until the age of 13 to touch and play one, when one of my cousins who was an evangelical brought one to my house and started teaching me. I only learned one song and it was “Les portes du Pénitencier” [The Doors of The National Prison]. It was a summer vacation. I became obsessed and would play from four in the morning—until late at night. I would not wash myself or eat during this time. This guitar was hand-made and awful green callouses on my fingertips would make it impossible for me to even remove my shirt which my mom would do for me. Still, I would go back the next day and play this guitar again and again.
We would go to Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, for the official [high school] exams. That was when I first met my cousin Boulo Valcourt, who also is a very famous musician. When I went back to Port-au-Prince after my school years at College Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours to study Law at the Faculté de Droit et des Sciences Economiques at the age of 19, I lived in his house. He introduced me to Brazilian music and to his circle of friends, musicians and media personalities. When Radio Nationale announced the first National Radio Contest for Valentine’s Day, I participated and won the first prize with my song “Lheu Nou Fache” [When We’re Angry]—at that time, Creole was not standardized; in fact, I have to write now “Lè nou fache”.This song was re-entitled “Bossa Valentine” by the jury whose members were well-known musicians—–Gérald Merceron, Ansy Dérose and Herby Widmaier.
I participated again at their Mother’s Day contest and won again the first prize while the late Joel Theodore won the second prize and Barbara Guillaume, the third. I tried to register for their Christmas contest but they rejected my registration saying that I had to give somebody else a chance. I only smiled and left their offices.
How did you get your first opportunity in music?
By taking part at this National Radio Contest organized by Radio Nationale in February, 1977—I believe—for Valentine’s Day.
Can you tell us more about this contest?
As far as I remember, Alexandre Abellard was the Director of Radio Nationale at that time. He was into poetry and arts, it looked like. The announcement was made and I took part of it. I registered and recorded my composition “Lheu Nou Fache” at the radio station. The sound engineer was the late Raymond Desmangles. My cousin Boulo Valcourt did play the lead guitar. I played the rhythm guitar and sang. This song was re-entitled “Bossa Valentine” by the jury whose members were the late Gerald Merceron, the late Ansy Derose and Herbie Widmaer.
When your parents and your family started to realize what a big part music was starting to play in your life, what was their reaction?
I was an A+ student. Consequently, when I started playing I faced no problem at home. However, a few of my classmates thought I was crazy since there was no real future for artists in our society. Many years later, while I was at Law School, my grandfather who was a very famous lawyer hinted the fact that someone had to take over after he was gone. Since I was his pseudo-secretary-I was typing all his documents–and I was so smart, he wanted me to be lawyer. His desire was approved by my mom who came to Boulo’s and made it clearly to me that I could not be a musician. Boulo intervened on my behalf and I also stated to my mom that she had to believe in me and my being a musician had nothing to do with fame and success but it was rather a calling. Since I did not drink or smoke, self-discipline, consistency and perseverance would help me achieve what I wanted. That was a blow for her, but I can say that she has always remained very supportive and never complained to me once even when I was playing on the T in Boston. She came to the train stations, heard me play and saw the positive reaction of the crowd. I was among the best buyers in Boston and sold more than 20,000 CDs by myself playing on the T. However, my playing in the subways of Boston has caused me many insults and humiliations from many of my peers and detractors though other “famous” Haitian jazz musicians have also performed in New York subway stations and that was never a problem for them.
If you were talking to someone who just had an inkling about Haitian music, and you had to introduce them to recordings that you feel capture the essence of what Haitian music is all about, which artists and which recordings would you recommend that they explore?
First of all, I have to mention that one needs to list all the genres within the spectrum of our music. Traditional music. One would find there the essence of our music–the peasants are the keepers of the Haitian collective soul. Chanting or enkantasyon in Creole. Rara. Folk music played “anba tonnèl” in the countryside. Those four styles represent the core of our music.
Merengue. Haitian classical music known also as “musique savante”. Not too much opera music but a very limited Haitian singers do embrace this genre, konpa, rasin, “Twoubadou” was an awful deviation from our music for “Twoubadou” is in fact “siwèl” played by our “twoubadou” or troubadours, Haitian ballad music strongly influenced by French music, Haitian big band music, Haitian Creole Jazz, Haitian Rap Kreyòl. And lastly, the natif concept I have come up with I would suggest to him or her to listen to Dòdòf Legros’ recordings as well as those of Issah El Saieh Orchestra, Lumane Casimir, Toto Bissainthe, Martha Jean-Claude, Emerantes De Pradines, Ti Paris, Altieri Dorival because those artists have remained close to the music as played by the peasants.
The early recordings of Septentrional Orchestra and Jazz des Jeunes though they are not quite solid references but they do reflect some aspects of our music. I would tell him or her to listen to the music of Raoul Guillaume, Edner Guillard both great composers and arrangers. I would mention the approach of Rodrigue Milien, Toto Necesite, and Coupe Cloue.
The classical pieces of Frantz Casséus as well as Werner Jaegerhuber, Julio Racine, Ludovic Lamothe, just to name a few are solid references on the classical aspect of our music.
And from there…
From that point on, Haitian music saw unfortunately an effortless innovation with no serious harmonic basis with the arrival of konpa that became so popular among the elite and the middle class. I was never interested in playing this genre, and for me, I have to stress it, there is nothing interesting to discover in this genre. However, I do have much more respect for Wébert Sicot than Nemours Jean-Baptiste—the former was an excellent reed player and a much better musician. In this genre, one must precise that Les Frères Déjean de Pétion-Ville, Magnum Band with Dadou Pasquet who is a very talented singer, songwriter and guitarist, Eddy Brisseaux with his Ra-Bop–fusion of Rara and Bepop– the Caribbean Sextet, Bossa Combo and Zeklè as well as the early “mini-jazz” bands such as Les Difficiles and Gypsies de Pétion-Ville, Les Ambassadeurs, les Vikings, Les Loups Noirs and Shleu-Shleu have left their marks in our pop music.
The “Rasin” movement with Boukman Eksperyans, Boukan Ginen and Lataye put a strong emphasis on our belief system which is Voodoo and subsequently its intonations.
However, this movement started with Ayizan of the very talented guitarist, composer and singer Tit Pascal. His music as well as Foula’s and Pierre Rigaud Chéry’s conveys the intonations of our music the way it is being played up in the hills of our country. Those intonations are slightly different. The Band Sa is alone by itself though Boukman Eksperyans is gearing toward this strongly rock sounds of Sa.
Sakad and Simbi have the same approach though Sakad used more electronics—drum machine pad and synthesizer—than Simbi.
RAM reminds me the softness of Jazz des Jeunes with no solid progressions and dissonant chords to support our popular songs in their interpretations.
Tokay, Kanpèch, Koudjay do not master the intonations of our music at all except in a few songs, and they have strong African influence with the Zouk flavor one can notice with their bass and guitar fingerings and phrasings.
Wawa et les Camisoles Bleues do not respect quite the intonations of our music, and contradict a lot our Voodoo belief system in his chants strongly influenced by the Gregorian chants of the Catholic Church. He is rather soft musically while the late Azor is always strong and even mesmerizing with his voice, his playing—one of the best Haitian conga players—and his music generally speaking. But, his expertise was the “Petro”—this is one beat that he mastered in all its three variances—Petro Fran, Petro Ti Joslyn and Petro Makaya.
Haitian modern pop music does not focus on good music and good arrangements. The whole idea is to find a groove and make people dance. It is not easy for me to recommend such a genre though one must appreciate the talents of great musicians such as Boulo Valcourt, Réginald Policard, Herby, Mushi and Joel Widmaer, Raoul Denis who is also a cellist, Réginald Policar, great keyboardist and songwriter, Reginald Lubin, a damn good singer who performs a lot with Réginald Policard, the great singer Didier Gary Perez, the new King Kino who has become an excellent vocalist. I must admit that we have very good musicians and the Haitian Jazz movement though not quite reflective of the fundamentals of our music has been embraced by excellent musicians such as Buyu Ambroise, Eddy Bourjolly, Jean Chardavoine, Gashford Guillaume, Rigaud Simon just to name a few. I have to mention Derns Emile who is an excellent guitarist and arranger. In fact, his arrangements have helped put Skah-Shah on the top of Haitian music charts in the 80’s. While Tabou Combo has remained the only Haitian band that has a hit on the French Hit Parades, I do not think it has a lot to offer musically though I like their song “Yo” very much as well as “Amélie” of Zeklè, which I consider an eternal song because of its undying freshness.
What are some of the artists that you’ve personally worked with that you would like for us to know about?
I had the privilege to work with Nikòl Levy who is now the musical Director of Septentrional Orchestra. I was one of the co-founders of Sakad with him and Ronald Félix, the bass player who performs from time to time with Tabou Combo. Nikòl was also my first music teacher at College Notre Dame in Cap-Haitien. He is a formidable musician and I hope they can give him enough rope in order for him to modernize the music of Septen. His analytical approach of our music is astonishing and I must confess that he contributes a lot to my understanding of music and musicology.
Another musician who taught me a lot regarding music gear, recording and mixing techniques was Robert Aaron. I was a very quiet learner. He is a multi-instrumentalist and he has produced two albums for me—Rara Mwe and Dans Pou Awoyo. Besides this, Robert’s arrangement techniques bring those layers that help build a song progressively which makes tensions and climaxes very nice and easy to resolve. I have learned this from him.
I must add that God has blessed with the fact that throughout my career many great musicians have contributed to my music—the very well rounded Haitian guitarist Eddy Bourjolly whom I have performed with many times at Chez Antoine in Long Island and recorded Serenade by Gifrants as well as Jean-Baptiste “Bonga” Gaston whom I consider one of the best Haitian conga players, the bassist Philippe Charles, brother of the great bassist Joe Charles, the drummer Jimmy Daniel who performed with famous American and international talents. I took him to Haiti to learn about our music and he became the chouchou [darling] of the musicians over there. Carol Chaikin,a formidable reed player, Jacqz Vincent, keyboardist who taught at the Music School in New York and who is now so famous in France as a trumpeter, Jane Wang, a real virtuoso on bass, Ken Cook on keys, amazing technician, the percussionist Taku Hirano who played with the late Whitney Houston, Alberto Netto and Andreas Brade, both drummers who taught at Berkelee College of Music in Boston, Rigaud Simon, my long-time friend whom I consider my brother in fact, and one of the greatest Haitian bass players who played also with Beethova Obas and Emeline Michel, Andy Dow, great bass player, Akili Jamal Haynes, percussionist who is a prodigy and a mult-instrumentalist, directed his high school band while he was in high School, Takafumi Suenaga, a formidable keyboardist who is also a physicist and Michael Williams Wright whom I consider among the top harmonica players in the world.
There must be times when you look back and evaluate your career and revisit moments and achievements. When you do that, what are some of the things you find are the most special, the most cherished moments of your career?
I do not have too much to say here. One of my greatest moments as a performer occurred at Libreri Mapou where everybody in the audience stood up and started dancing while I was playing guitar. While I do consider the realization of the natif concept one of the greatest achievements of a Haitian musician in the history of our music, I do not feel comfortable taking credit. It is not part of my goals. I also know that the genres such as Chantrèl, Mizkla and Sètfwasèt which I have added to the spectrum of our music bring new foundations to its future—but if there is no continuity after I’m gone, my research and works will remain a thing of the past with major opportunities simply lost.
How did you start playing the guitar?
I did mention that one of my cousins, Jude Célestin, who is an evangelical came to our house with a guitar. He taught me a little bit how to play “Les Portes du Pénitencier” interpreted by Johnny Halliday. “House of the Rising Sun” is the American version. That was the only song of another composer I have interpreted for more than 40 years. I would not even play “Haiti Chérie” or other popular songs, and to tell you the truth, I have never felt the progressions. I was obsessed by chords and progressions. So right away, I went to buy a little music book written by Marabou, and started learning about chords and progressions. Yet, at the age of thirteen, I started writing my own music.
If you were mentoring a young male musician or really any musician of either sex for that matter, what would you say to him or her to prepare him or her for a life in music?
I would tell anyone who is interested to be a musician that the genius sleeps with his or her instrument. That means practice is the key. There is the artist and the musician. The latter thinks about money, fame and success. The artist lives for his or her art. Everything else is secondary.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yes. I’m working on two new music books——Pinnalaganash, Chantrèl II——14 pieces written for the violin with a quartet instrumentation, and Kantik Natif, Volim II, 21 songs both traditional and original where I explore much more the “natif” concept.