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Haiti meets New Orleans at WXPN's Kanaval Ball at the Fillmore – The Philadelphia Inquirer

The much delayed free party featuring Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Boukman Eksperyans is finally happening on Sunday afternoon.
Kanaval time is finally here.
The music and culture of Haiti and New Orleans will come together in Philadelphia when the Kanaval Ball brings the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Haitian mizik rasin groups Boukman Eksperyans and RAM, and Afro-Haitian dancers Nadia Dieudonné & Feet of Rhythm to the Fillmore in Fishtown on Sunday.
The Kanaval Ball — named for the annual ebullient celebration that takes place in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras in the capital city of Port-au-Prince — is the culmination of over a year’s worth of Haitian-New Orleans programming by University of Pennsylvania station WXPN-FM (88.5). The concert, which starts at 4 p.m., is free, but registration is required at xpnkanaval.org
In January 2021, the station premiered the radio documentary Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms & the Music of New Orleans. The three-hour documentary produced by Alex Lewis was hosted by Leyla McCalla, the New Orleans-based Haitian American musician who’s a member of the folk supergroup Our Native Daughters.
The audio doc was a focal point of the fourth in a series, which began in 2012 with the Mississippi Blues Project, with the intention “to do yearlong deep dives into the roots of the music we play” says WXPN station manager Roger LaMay. The 2018 doc, The Gospel Roots of Rock & Soul, was nominated for a Peabody and won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
Live events surrounding Kanaval were shuffled and rescheduled due to COVID-19 last year, though Haitian artist Paul Beaubrun did play the Xponential Music Festival in Camden in September, and McCalla performed her theater piece Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever at Fringe Arts in December.
The initial plan was for Kanaval Ball to kick off the project in January 2021. At the time, McCalla talked about the history of Creole culture in New Orleans being shaped by the multiracial exodus in 1809 of 10,000 Haitians, including free Black and enslaved persons, after the Haitian Revolution.
Cuban influence on New Orleans culture has been more often recognized than Haitian. The Kanaval project aims to redress the balance. “To me, it’s an anti-Blackness,” McCalla said. “It’s the result of living in a white-supremacist society. Haiti is an undeniably Black place.”
WXPN aimed to further the conversation with the Kanaval Ball, which the station first moved to November, and then scheduled it for this past January, in advance of Mardi Gras 2022.
That plan, which was to include DJ sets by Arcade Fire leader Win Butler and Michael Brun, was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 surge caused by the omicron variant.
The time and the place of the rescheduled celebration is good for Preservation Hall Band leader Ben Jaffe. The group has been itching to play for crowds again after this year’s Mardi Gras celebrations with Krew du Kanaval, the parading organization that Jaffe founded in 2018 with Butler and his Haitian American wife, Regine Chassagne, were again canceled because of COVID.
“We’ve been working behind the scenes,” Jaffe said, speaking from his studio in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, close by the French Quarter home of Preservation Hall, the institution founded in 1961 by his parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe.
Charlie Gabriel, a Preservation Hall saxophonist, has just released a debut solo album, 89, named after his age. “Didn’t Adele do that? Name her albums after how old she is?” Jaffe asks.
Gabriel won’t be traveling to Philly. “He’ll be with us in spirit,” says Jaffe, 51, who plays tuba and double bass.
RAM, the group that was founded in 1990 by Richard A. Morse, who describes them as a “Vodou rock n’ roots” band, came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras for a residency at the Pres Hall studio.
“But we didn’t have the processions and the big gatherings with all of our folks from Haiti the way we usually do,” Jaffe says. “So this is really going to be the first time we’ve had a celebration that brings everybody together.”
Kanaval Ball will also be a homecoming of sorts for Jaffe, whose parents were Philadelphians before they were New Orleanians. His father, who also played tuba, grew up in Pottsville and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He died in 1987 at 51.
His mother Sandra, who died in December at 83, was the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants and raised in Wynnefield and Bala Cynwyd. She graduated from Harcum College in Bryn Mawr in 1958. The couple were married on Christmas Day in 1960 and stopped in New Orleans on their way back from a honeymoon in Mexico.
After hearing jazz musicians play in an art gallery on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, the Jaffes were smitten and decided to stay. They rented the tiny building for $400 and founded Preservation Hall, giving musicians a home that has endured for six decades.
“My parents were bohemians,” Jaffe says. “The year they moved to New Orleans was the same year that three college students were murdered in Mississippi. It was the same time that Bob Dylan was moving to Greenwich Village. There was something afoot. They were the right age, at the right moment, with the right spirit.”
Among the bands Preservation Hall has collaborated with is Boukman Eksperyans, whom Michael Brun, who curates the highly recommended Haitian Heat playlist on Spotify, calls, along with RAM, “the most iconic and legendary to come from the country.”
Theodore “Lolo” Beaubrun founded Boukman Eksperyans in 1978, naming the band after Dutty Boukman, who died while leading a revolt among enslaved people in 1791.
The second part of the name “comes from the Jimi Hendrix Experience,” Beaubrun explains, signaling the mix of Haitian roots music and rock instrumentation. “It’s a fusion. People can hears the drums, which comes from Vodou, but and the bass and guitars.”
For Beaubrun, a meeting of the Haitian and New Orleans communities makes perfect musical sense.
“I have been to New Orleans and participated in Kanaval celebrations in Congo Square,” he said, referring to the place in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans where the gatherings of enslaved and free Black people were foundational to jazz.
“You can hear the rhythms of Haitian music in the music,” Beaubrun says. “There is a blend of culture there that is beautiful. When they sing and speak in Creole, it is not far from the Haitian Creole. All those things make me see New Orleans like home. That’s why I love New Orleans.”
Kanaval Ball with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ram, Boukman Eksperyans and Nadia Dieudonné & Feet of Rhythm at Fillmore Philly, 29 E. Allen St. at 4 p.m. Sunday Free. Registration required at xpnkanaval.org. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test required for entry.

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