Krewe du Kanaval and Preservation Hall bring New Orleans and Haitian music to Big Ears Festival – OffBeat Magazine

The Krewe Du Kanaval brought the sights and sounds of both New Orleans and Haiti to the streets and music venues of Knoxville, Tennessee, on the last weekend of March as part of the sold-out Big Ears Festival. Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 79rs Gang, Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses and Sporty’s Brass Band represented New Orleans while two Haitian groups, RAM and Lakou Mizik, traveled from Haiti.
The Big Ears Festival, which began in 2009, is a four-day event focusing on avant-garde music in several fields at various venues around downtown Knoxville. Krewe du Kanaval was started in 2015 by Ben Jaffe, the creative director of Preservation Hall, two founding members of the rock band Arcade Fire: Win Butler and his wife Régine Chassagne, whose family is Haitian.  After moving to New Orleans, Butler and Chassagne met Jaffe and invited Jaffe on a research trip to explore Haitian culture.
As Ben Jaffe told Paste magazine, “When we were down there, Régine introduced me to the gentleman who had the band called RAM, Richard Morse. And immediately there was a brotherhood there. He’s doing very similar things in his community that are also being done in New Orleans, like what Preservation Hall does, just on a different scale and with different obstacles.”
RAM had already appeared at the New Orleans Jazzn and Heritage Festival in 1994 and 2011. The latter was when Haiti was the festival’s featured country and the members of RAM were in high demand. In addition to concerts, parades and an interview at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, RAM held drumming sessions and Vodou ceremonies all seven days of Jazz Fest. Morse, the leader of the band, feels a strong connection between Haiti and New Orleans. “They are twin sisters, separated at birth,” he said. In the years of the Haitian Revolution in the early 19th century, Haitians  fled the island and immigrated to New Orleans where they doubled the city’s population in a short period of time. “But New Orleans got adopted and ended up with better instruments, trumpets and brass, so jazz developed in New Orleans,” Jaffe said. “Haiti has tin horn and lots of drums but I believe jazz has Haitian rara at its roots.” 
Morse’s father was a Latin American scholar and his mother a famous Haitian dancer/singer/educator. He grew up in the US and joined his first band after college for nearly 6 years. He spent time in New York City playing clubs like CBGBs. He only moved to Haiti after a friend encouraged him to find his ancestral roots. His trip to explore Haitian folklore rhythms led to a life-changing experience that resulted in a permanent move. He learned Haitian Kreole at age 28 and began working for and then acquiring an historic hotel, the Olfosson in Port-au-Prince. He revived the tradition of hosting weekly folkloric dance performances at the hotel and  married the lead dancer of one dance group. In a documentary film, Morse’s wife, Lunise, summarized what came next: “We had two children and formed a band.”
RAM has since become a premier rasin roots music band in Haiti. While Lunise had already been a dancer, her abilities as a lead vocalist cemented the sound for RAM. Now their son William, born as the band was forming, is lead guitarist. RAM has released seven albums. They have fine-tuned a unique sound based upon traditional rhythms and songs, often from Vodou ceremonies, that are reworked into new creations, at times lyrics in English.
While they have a strong contingent of drummers, it is RAM’s electric guitar that brings a rock element to the mix. The appearance of one of their earliest songs in the soundtrack to the Tom Hanks movie Philadelphia (1993) raised the band’s profile early on. Since then, they have had stunning music videos that give a sense of the band’s presence in Haiti, whether at the Oloffson or on the streets.
When Haitian life is not in upheaval, as is sadly the case now, RAM performs weekly at the Oloffson. RAM has always faced enormous challenges given the difficult political situation in Haiti. But the group is still recording, performing, and traveling to the US despite the obstacles at home.
Krewe du Kanaval was formed after that first 2015 trip. In 2018, Krewe du Kanaval started an annual Mardi Gras parade and Carnival ball in New Orleans and, in turn, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band visited Haiti to perform as part of Fèt Gede, a Day of the Dead festival. On repeated visits, members of Preservation Hall came come to realize their own ancestral connections to Haiti. Covid largely put special events on hold since early 2020, but recently they have started up again.
Last October, Krewe du Kanaval brought RAM to the Broadside in New Orleans for a Gede celebration and RAM went on a short US Gede tour. While in New Orleans, a spinoff ensemble from RAM called Imamou recorded at the Preservation Hall’s studio. Morse is particularly thankful for the support in the last several years that Jaffe, Preservation Hall and the Krewe du Kanaval have given the band, which has also included school residencies is both Lafayette, Louisiana, and Asheville, North Carolina.
Just a few days before the Big Ears Festival, RAM and Preservation Hall appeared at a special free Kanaval Ball at The Fillmore in Philadelphia sponsored by local radio station WXPN. The station previously created a two-hour radio special, Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms & the Music of New Orleans, that has been made available to NPR stations and for online access. Hosted by Leyla McCalla, the program features RAM’s music among many other Haitian bands. 
In Knoxville, Krewe Du Kanaval was featured in a night of appearances at the Tennessee Amphitheatre. The group joined an afternoon parade with the local giant puppet group the Cattywampus Puppet Council, followed by a free outdoor street party and an evening of performances at the Mill and Mine. 
Indeed, the Big Ears Festival this year had a distinctive Haitian focus in addition to the involvement of Krewe du Kanaval. New Orleans’ own Leyla McCalla  presented two concerts, one focused on her new album, Breaking the Thermometer. Slated to be released on May 6 on ANTI Records, the tracks are drawn from a theatrical presentation based on the archives of Radio Haiti at Duke University. In addition, Haitian American flutist and composer Nathalie Joachim, Grammy winner for her debut album Fanm d’Ayiti was also featured in two very different sets. As well, there was a fine set by jazz drummer Ches Smith’s group We All Break which focused on a fusion of jazz and Vodou traditions.
Public interviews were done by leading Haitian scholar Laurent Dubois with McCalla and Nathalie Joachim on one morning and Jaffe and Morse the next. Dubois noted that the work between RAM and Preservation Hall “activates the deep, deep-rooted connections … and make explicit connections that have been implicit,”
After great experiences in Knoxville and Philadelphia, Krewe du Kanaval will transition into an independent civic organization based here in New Orleans with expanded year-round community engagement beyond carnival season and around the country,” Jaffe said. 
400 Esplanade Avenue (in the New Orleans Jazz Museum),
New Orleans, LA 70116

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