The legendary Alix “Buyu” Ambroise Jr’s journey has been different to say the least. It took him from Port-au-Prince, Haiti—where he was born into one of Haiti’s aristocratic families—to Africa, and then New York, where he currently resides.
During Ambroise’s early years, he found himself inspired by the music of saxophone great Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, just to name a few. Initially attracted to the flute, Ambroise eventually picked up the saxophone. He would go on to play the sax for different bands, and actually founded several—including the jazz-folklore bands Freefall, Metrosonik—but it would take years for him to go the solo route. When he did so, in the early 2000s, it was almost as if some musical waterfall burst through. His latest disc is the creatively-titled Jazzpora. That album has a track called “En Vacances” that’s very piano-heavy, with nostalgic chords meant to evoke the sun-drenched summers spent in Haiti that Ambroise recalls ever so well. The foundations of the opening track “Fifth House” were obviously laid on African-styled rhythms. The track ends with the tamed last minutes sounds of a wild Caribbean carnival of sort.
Ambroises’s other previous release Marasa was the perfect outlet for him to vomit out all the different influences that he’d been absorbing since childhood. The percussion-driven disc displayed Ambroise’s penchant for dramatic bass lines, and made use of harried west African-inspired rhythms, and yielded an overall eclectic sound.
Blues in Red, released in the mid-2000s, contained 10 tracks—mostly traditional songs from Haiti’s traditional song repertoire like “Kote Moun Yo”, “Kouzen”, and “Caravan”. The latter was a piece that bemoaned and celebrated the endless odyssey of Haitians, who pack and roam with all their cultural possessions with multiple stops. On the album’s cover, Ambroise’s downcast face is set in sepia Nephilim-like proportions, the only brightness is the Haitian flag bandana wrapped around his head. He doesn’t clutch his saxophone, but holds it away from his face, as if it’s something he’s reluctantly embracing. Happily, the cover for Jazzpora has Ambroise clutching to his instrument like a long-lost love found, and blowing passionately into it.
Passion is a trait embedded in Ambroise’s performances from the stage of the Montreal Jazz Music Festival to the New York Blue Note Jazz Brunch series. One of his latest appearances was at the Jazz Mobile, late this summer. His roots-drenched music can be heard from the performing stage of La Caye, a Haitian venue near the Brooklyn Art Museum.
Q & A
What sort of man is Buyu Ambroise?
I am an artist, parent, and educator. I have spent my life fulfilling all these roles. All of them require a full-time commitment. Sometimes I give priority to one role over another. However, the artistic me always takes precedence and has been and continues to be the guiding light that shines the pathways of my life.
You left Haiti as a child. Do you have any memories of the time you spent there?
I vividly remember my childhood years growing up in Haiti during the heyday of the Duvalier dictatorship which would later impact both my adolescent and adult life. As a child of the 1960’s era and growing up in Haiti, I attended the Petit Séminaire College St Martial—a liberal Catholic school in Port-au-Prince which prepared me academically and later helped shape my political views. Being part of a middle-class family back in those days, one easily could become a political target of the Duvalier regime. Any opposition to the government then could cost one’s life or exile. Some members of my family were targeted and became victims. Therefore, during my youth years in Haiti—as far I can remember—fear was a common denominator in my daily routine. Government terror impacted Haitian life. I first left Haiti to join my dad who was working as an educator in the Congo. I would later return to spend two more years in Haiti, but repressive political events in Haiti along with the disappearance of close relatives, brought the family to an exiled residency in the U.S. My childhood in Haiti was short but my memories limitless. As any other young boy in my neighborhood, a lot my leisure time was spent playing soccer, listening to music, exploring nature, visiting family members. I am fortunate to have been born in a family of artists. At home, there was always music. That was the seed of my music apprenticeship.
How did you get the name Buyu?
It was given to me by my grandmother, Reine Taluy. It has stuck with me since.
You spent a considerable part of your childhood in The Republic of Congo, also known as Zaire. What do you remember of those years?
My dad, who landed a job in the newly independent Congo would later have the family join him there. As a child, I attended school. The 1960’s was a period of social change for the Congolese. There was a growing sense of nationalism. Haitian educators and other professionals were recruited by the Congolese government to replace the fleeing Belgians, who once colonized that country. Our family lived in Leopoldville, the capital, which later was renamed Kinshasa. I intermittently lived there for two years. I have fond memories of the time spent there with my parents and siblings. It was a new experience as any immigrant would feel anxiety, longing for one’s country, language barrier, adaptation to a new environment, etc. However, the transition for me was somewhat smooth. There was a niche of Haitian immigrants living in the Congo. That small community somewhat bonded and was able to create a support system which was useful to the Haitian compatriots. I remember listening to African bands playing music. My dad used to go listen to live music performances by Congolese groups. It was good dancing music. It had, surprisingly, elements of Afro-Cuban influence, but with a style dominated by guitars and horns. I remember spending time listening to the radio and records that my dad would buy for his home collection. He was an avid listener and a passionate musician. He played the piano and would perform solo piano concerts for the school where he worked or wherever he could find the instrument. He would play all the Haitian repertoire that he had learned back in Haiti.
Was there a big Haitian Community in the Congo?
Yes, there was a considerable amount of Haitian professionals living in the Congo during the time I lived there. Among them, the illustrious Maurice Sixto, the great raconteur whom I had the privilege to meet. I also met Raoul Peck, one of the best Haitian filmmakers of my generation.
Later of course, following the time in the Congo, your parents moved to New York.
With Mobutu being in power in the Congo, my dad felt the need to relocate elsewhere. He decided to migrate to the United States. I moved to New York as a young adolescent. The biggest shocks? Having to adapt to a new language; a new school curriculum. It was a period of social unrest in the U.S. African-Americans were leading marches and fighting for their civil rights. The assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King; the Black Panther Movement was rampant in my neighborhood in Brooklyn; the Vietnam War; the Hippies; etc. were events that shook my world. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a period of major changes which happened so quickly. Being a young adolescent immigrant, I was unprepared. I was not able to understand the complexities of my environment, let alone understand the social, cultural and political phenomena which would later fashion my political, social and cultural views as an adult. I was just beginning to listen to jazz. It was also a period in which young Haitians attending school were stigmatized and being called Frenchies or immigrants. Many of them were unable to defend themselves due to language and cultural barriers. Young Haitians formed gangs. They roamed the streets of Brooklyn protecting their turfs. It was a highly combustive period where everything happened too fast but I was able to grasp a tiny bit of everything.
What attracted you to the saxophone?
I first began to play the saxophone while I attended George W. Wingate H.S. in Brooklyn, N.Y. I started while in the 10th grade. It was the time when Haitian bands like Shleu-Shleu, Fantaisistes de Carrefour, Shupa-Shupa, Les Ambassadeurs etc. were becoming popular. All of these bands were led by a saxophone. This instrument became very popular. I used to listen to their music and pay particular attention to the horn players. But the choice of playing the saxophone was purely a coincidence. I started on the flute and later switched to the saxophone because the flute had mechanical problems. The music instructor suggested that I choose and play another instrument. That’s how I began playing the alto saxophone.
Blues in Red is a rather intriguing title, and it was the name of your first musical baby. [Can you please discuss the album? The recording process of it?
There wasn’t really a plan to record an album. It began with Haiti’s Bicentennial Celebration in 2004. My cousin Patrick Plantin suggested that I form a group and do a musical tribute to our country by recording a jazz album. I agreed with the idea and followed his suggestions. In 2004, I recorded and released the CD entitled Blues in Red. It was named after the colors of the Haitian flag.
And why after playing the saxophone for such a long time on other artists’ albums, you finally decided to do one of your own?
I guess it took time for me to feel confident enough to do a recording as a leader.
Jazzpora is your latest work. Do you care to discuss it?
Jazzpora is my third CD as of date. It is a continuation of the first CD project Blues in Red. It is a collection of works that rest upon small jazz combo arrangements and compositions. I am constantly in search of a new approach in my musical journey. Obviously, the title expresses our experience of life in the diaspora through the sounds of music.
Do you think that Jazz music as you know it will die in years to come?
I don’t think so. Jazz and classical music will always be around. Jazz is not a transient form of music. It continues to evolve in so many ways and is still a popular form of music. So many young jazz artists are pushing the envelope and making a name for themselves.
Jazz greats Frank Foster, Jimmy Owens and John Lewis have all been inspirations to you. What are some of the things you learned studying under these talents?
Under each of these instructors I learned a lot: jazz theory; jazz harmony; saxophone techniques; reading music, and other music fundamentals and rudiments.
Just like you looked up to them at one point, some look up to you now. What advice do you have for the aspiring jazz musicians?
Becoming a jazz musician requires a full-time commitment to the art form. Many universities and specialized programs nowadays offer jazz curricula where one can learn and earn a degree in music. It is the best route to take.
From Marasa to your current albums, you always manage to gather a talented assorted bunch to work alongside you. How do you get them together?
Fortunately, living in New York gives one a great advantage since this is an arts mecca. There are so many talented musicians living here in NYC. Having played so many years in so many different places, my Rolodex cards are filled with names. I tend to select a bunch of great players who can respond to the music I strive to play: Haitian Jazz.
Do you think that Haitian music has influenced American music, as in music in the United States, more than most people might think?
The United states and Haiti are the two oldest republics of the western hemisphere. These two nations are intertwined in music. It is well documented by historians that Haitian slaves were taken by their owners to Louisiana during the revolutionary period of St Domingue in the late 18th century. Those slaves were said to have brought their musical heritage with them which later influenced the music which played at Congo Square. Congo Square music later became the seed that germinated and flourished into a style of music that is today called jazz.
Is the use of drugs as pervasive among musicians in the music world, as some seem to assume?
I have seen very little use of it in my circle of musicians.
You have collaborated with a great many Haitian artists. Which collaborations have been the most fruitful and satisfying in terms of musical chemistry, and output?
My musical collaboration with pianist Ernst Marcelin and guitarists Alix “Tit” Pascal, D’Ernst Emile and Albert “Beti” Ambroise were very fruitful in learning Haitian music of all genres.
As someone who was born in Haiti, and yet has spent practically an entire lifetime in the United States, when you go there now, what’s the feeling you get, what’s the vibe?
For each time I go home, I experience a total natural makeover of myself. When I perform in Haiti, I feel replenished, renewed, and a feeling of nourishing my heritage. Haiti is the reservoir of my inspiration.
When was the last time you were there, by the way?
The last time I was there was in October 2011. I did a tour that took me to the north of Haiti. I performed on the grounds the famous Sans-Souci Palace in Milot.