Obed Calvaire, photo by Jasmin Ortiz
Renowned jazz drummer pairs Haitian history with revolutionary music

NEW YORK & PHILADELPHIA - GeorgiaChron -- 150 Million Gold Francs.

It's 1804. Haitians are the first African Republic population to obtain independence. After a revolution lasting more than 12 years, Haiti declared independence from colonial rule and enslavement for all its people.

If only emancipation was that simple.

Being the first country founded by former slaves, Haiti won its independence from France. 20 years later, King Charles X sent warships to Haiti. Their mission: return with a whole lot of money or start a new war. The demand: Haitians were to pay those who once enslaved them 150 million francs (which happened to be made of gold). The people of Haiti won their independence via trauma, battle and death. They secured their freedom with cash money.

Charles X claimed to be the freer of enslaved Haitians. What was called the Haitian Revolution affected life around the world: while the transatlantic slave trade ended, one could argue that France's sale of its land in North America to the US (taught as the Louisiana Purchase) enabled slavery's expansion into the southern territory.

And Haiti? Were its citizens enjoying an abundant, financially stable life post-enslavement? Far from it: the 150 million francs led to an immeasurable debt, which led to poverty, mismanagement of resources, and destruction of property. Haiti remains the first, and only, country where generations of enslaved people's descendants paid the families of their former masters.

150 Million Gold Francs.

Today. Besides being the impetus for ongoing strife in Haiti, it is the name given by prominent, Haitian-American jazz drummer Obed Calvaire to his first album. Its seven songs recognize, celebrate, and honor the Haitian people. Released on April 12, 2024 by RopeADope, the record presents the rhythms, tones, and vernacular of Haiti while simultaneously sharing the country's turmoil, and broadcasting music that galvanizes.

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150 Million Gold Francs begins with a childhood song. As it was then, on the album it is sung by his mother, Gerda Calvaire. "Sa Pa Fem Anyen" (Haitian creole for "It doesn't bother me") is a church hymn whose comforting, empowering message is delivered stronger by Mrs. Calvaire. Because when "a child hears their mother's voice," they feel comforted and safe. For an album as personal as this one is to its creator, its first song sets the tone for every sound the follows.

When listening to "Sa Pa Fem Anyen," look at the album's cover, powerfully photographed by Jasmin Ortiz. You'll witness Obed standing shirtless, eyes closed, wrists encapsulated b manacles. That the shackles are drawn doesn't diminish the impact of seeing a Black man in bondage. The photo is part of Obed's intention to empower and instruct his community and their allies to "get their s--- together."

Among those whose s--- is together are the musicians playing with Obed on this album. This coterie of Haitian and Haitian-American musicians includes Godwin Louis (alto saxophone), Harold St. Louis (keyboards), Sullivan Fortner (piano), Dener Ceide (guitar), Addi Lafosse (electric bass), and on "Sa Nou Fa Nap Peye," the group is joined by Jonathan Michel (bass). These players – some of whom have been performing together since youth – paint musically what would be impossible for those who only know about Haiti. These men know Haiti, and that inherent awareness fuses and fuels the rhythms, tones, analog and electronic sounds. You'll hear this in every song, and in most heartfelt ways in "Just Friends," where Obed "is playing with [his] close friends who have Haiti in common with [him]."

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"Haiti's Journey," where the bright, twangy opening segues into a dark and distorted tone and a jolting, unsettled tempo. Obed wrote this with the intention to conjure the time when François "Papa Doc" Duvalier was Haiti's president. This ruthless dictator, among other things, decided affranchis (mulattos), descendants of slave masters, should be killed. Duvalier wanted to "take his country back." In his sick mind, eliminating light-skinned people would provide him with complete control over Haiti.

The bitter truth: most of these murdered people were wealthy, thanks to money inherited from their white ancestors, and they owned broadcast media networks and schools. Following their assassinations, the structures they owned – which employed, informed, and educated most of the nation's residents, disintegrated. With those who made what was possible gone, it did not take long for media, education, and property ownership to go sideways.

Haiti's current political-economic struggle is imbued in "Sa Nou Fe Nap Peye," whose translation is "we're paying for what we've done." In 1825, Haitians paid financially. Since then, they have been paying experientially, psychologically, and emotionally. Addi's and Jonathan's string sounds have been manipulated so they sound not alien, not different, and still unexpected. Obed declared, "This particular number represents how the people who comprised the first African-American republic to win its independence, and its progeny, will always be an example. As Haitians, we as a people are not healed from this."

Flashing forward to the album's final song (preceded by "150 Million Gold Francs" and "Gaya Ko W"), whose English translation is "There isn't a mountain that love can't break," Obed wraps the record with a call to action. "Nan Pwen Miray Lanmou Pap Kraze" beckons and encourages the listener. No accident here: Obed told me, "Since the beginning of time, wars have been fought over religion and land. What brings us together is love. When we love people, there's nothing we can't do."


150 Million Gold Francs, the album, can be purchased on Bandcamp. Keep up with Obed on his website, which is the exclusive location of his discography, videos, and performance schedule.

Kate Harvie

Source: Kate Harvie

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