Cultural Integration Through Music and Dance

Learn about Haiti’s standout musical impact through icons such as Issa El Saieh, Raoul Guillaume and Emerante des Pradines.

Music and dance in Haiti has many legendary artists and their influences have been recognized in musical circles throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and the U.S. One such Haitian musical icon is Issa El Saieh. Born in Haiti, Maestro Issa assembled the Big Band sound, and infused it with traditional Haitian rhythm and instruments as well as spurring the careers of many legendary artists. He studied music in the US, first playing the clarinet, and then the alto saxophone. Following his time in the US, Issa moved back to Haiti, where he created his orchestra, dubbed "Issa El Saieh Et Son Orchestre" (Issa El Saieh and his orchestra). This is where the story begins.....

Maestro Issa & The Beginnings

Issa Saieh, aka Maestro Issa,  shares his family tree and his introduction to music where he learned first to play the clarinet, and then the alto saxophone.  

Maestro Issa's Orchestra

Raoul Guillaume, renown alto saxophonist, recounts his early experience in music and his introduction to play in Issa Saieh's orchestra. 

Sounds and Influencers I

Musical icons, legendary musicians and songs were everywhere. Guy Durosier sings his legendary song.

Sounds and Influencers II

Emerante des Pradines, also a folklorist, often sang vodou songs in Creole on the radio. Pradines was an early Haitian female compositor, dancer and singer, beginning her career in the early 40s as a featured singer & dancer in Washington, DC.

Throughout the 50s & 60s, Emerante des Pradines became the first Haitian singer to sign a recording contract with a record company and held a regular concert series at the Rex Theater in Port-au-Prince. Emerante des Pradines is the daughter of Candjo Pradines who wrote a song called "Erzulie" after viewing a vodou ceremony where he discovered in their words "the real culture of Haiti".

Sounds of Haiti

A master class on the three styles of Haitian meringue dance music with saxophonist, Raoul Guillaume. 

According to Raoul Guillaume, saxophonist and Issa El Saieh orchestra member, there are three distinct styles of Meringue:
Group A - Instrumental meringue, which is close to a slower Cuban style that has since disappeared.
Group B - Meringue Gaie, slower than Carnaval Meringue and good for dancing
Group C - A style primarily associated with Carnaval Meringue and spinoffs which include Compas and Racine music.

By Allan GrantLIFE Photo Collection

Haiti and Latin Jazz

Latin Jazz was heavily influenced by Haitian musicians and vice versa.  Musicians Frantz Casseus and Martha Jean Claude collaborated with Cuban artists such as Celia Cruz and Bebo Valdés, as well as Puerto Rican artists such as Daniel Santos, and Lolita Cuevas.   

Maestro Issa - Carribean Influence I (2009) by Frantz Voltaire CIDIHCAHaiti Film Institute

Caribbean Influence I

Downtown Port-au-Prince was a bustling epi center for artists to play in local hot spots. In particular, Haitian and Cuban musicians were very familiar with each other since they often traveled,  played together and each had a love for music.  

Celia Cruz was influenced by traditional Haitian music and culture, brought to Cuba by the slaves and migrant Haitian farmers. Martha Jean Claude, a Haitian-born singer and activist exiled to Cuba in 1952, was admired in Hispanic communities for her talent and musical stylings. Martha Jean Claude often incorporated Haitian folklore and voodoo lyrics into her performances.

Caribbean Influence II

Cuban singer Celia Cruz acknowledges  Haitian singer Martha Jean-Claude  during her performance and sings one of Martha's songs. Both appreciated each others musical talents.

Cultural exchange between Haiti and Cuba have existed for many decades.

Caribbean Influence III

Haitian and Cuban musical stylings were exchanged heavily in the mid-20th century and beyond as Herby Widmaer remembers from his early childhood.  A product of this exchange is a Haitian traditional style of music called Troubadour or Twoubadou. Troubadour style is close to Cuban style bolero and originates from a combination of Méringue and Cuban traditions.

Haitian influenced rhythms, songs, lyrics, messages, melodies, and choreographies each told their own story to those who chose to listen.

Indigenous Dance (2017) by Haiti National Bureau of EthnologyHaiti Film Institute

Caribbean Dance Influence

Shared African heritage closely link Haitian and Cuban culture. It is most expressed in traditional dance and musical styles.  

Caribbean Dance Influence

In Cuba, Haiti's dance and musical influence since the 1800's remains evident in styles such as Tumba Francesa, Contradanza, Danzon and Troubadour.

Several jazz artists from the US including musicians of the Harlem Renaissance played and co-composed with Maestro Issa's Orchestra. The Haitian musicians were also influenced by this cross cultural exposure.

Jazz Influencers

According to Herby Widmaer, Billy Taylor, the great American jazz pianist, co-created several pieces with Issa's orchestra. Those recordings are very rare.

The cross cultural influences, collaboration and celebration of music continues with the annual Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival (PAP Jazz) under the Kreyol sky.

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