Haiti’s top twoubadou Ti-Coca and his band Wanga-Nègès know that a really good party, like a flitting hummingbird, can swiftly find new places and flourish.
They’ve been everywhere, from cameos in French feature films to rousing shows at major European venues. They effortlessly packed tents at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, inviting kids to play percussion with them onstage and wooing unsuspecting American listeners to dance. And they know that even good fun can have a serious impact.
“I want Americans to have a real taste of Haiti. I mean, a taste of traditional culture, what rural life is like,” reflects Ti-Coca, “to have the essence of the real Haiti, not what people see in the media. I want to put the audience in a place of mind that’s magical, so they can forget all the worries they have and simply enjoy another culture they don’t know.”
With a straightforward and utterly committed joy, Ti-Coca moves through Haiti’s African, Caribbean, and Latin acoustic sounds with the high-energy determination and lightness of his group’s namesake, the hummingbird. Nimble banjo and shimmering accordion pair up with earthy percussion, the rollicking manoumba (traditional double bass), and Ti-Coca’s tcha-tcha, a simple gourd percussion instrument he coaxes into virtuosity. Led by his gritty, warm voice and unflagging charisma, Ti-Coca and his group make a mixture designed to elevate and seduce.
The ensemble will tour the U.S. in September-October 2012 as part of Center StageSM (www.centerstageUS.org). An initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Center Stage brings compelling contemporary artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan to the United States to engage the American people in cultural diplomacy as a way to create opportunities for greater understanding. Administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, with funding from the Asian Cultural Council, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, this public-private partnership is the largest public diplomacy effort to bring foreign artists to American stages in recent history.
Ti-Coca made a name for himself—literally and figuratively—after he came to Port-au-Prince from the countryside in the 1970s. Only 14, he was so short when he arrived that everyone called him “Little Coke Bottle,” a reference to the diminutive glass bottles the soda was sold in at the time.
But he was big on stage presence, and had a long and resourceful tradition behind him. Evolved in Haiti’s isolated rural areas, twoubadous‘ repertoire—often referring to history, turning past events into parables—is apolitical, but has become a key touchstone for Haitians, privileged and poor alike. Twoubadous are in demand everywhere: They are hired to greet visitors at the airport, to pack the dance floor at exclusive dinner clubs, and to keep the party going in small villages and towns. And Ti-Coca is considered one of the best.
Though increasingly appreciated by urban audiences, twoubadous have long made the most of their rural communities’ lack of electricity and technology, using whatever resonant materials they can get their hands on.
“Anything could be an instrument,” Ti-Coca notes with a smile. “It’s about friends gathering and playing, getting together to have fun and express their lives and feelings. It doesn’t take a lot of equipment to do it.” Musicians crafted their own flutes, double bass-like manoumbas, gourd shakers, and songs reflecting bittersweet everyday life, the instructive follies of the great, and the pleasures of love.
Bursting with energy and quickly rising from obscurity to Port-au-Prince prominence, Ti-Coca added new elements to the twoubadou music he had learned as a child, as rural sounds gained popularity in Haiti’s urban centers. Cuban moments, the mereng (Haiti’s French-inflected version of merengue), and the wildly popular and swinging dance music of konpa-direk found a place in Ti-Coca’s light yet deep-rooted songs.
New influences and old acoustic ways all serve one purpose, as Ti-Coca likes to emphasize: Fun. “You just use everything that makes a sound to create good music, so that people have a good time,” he laughs. Lyrics may have moments of critique or complaint, or references to the profound spiritual traditions of Haitian vodou, but basically it’s about the party.
“Our music isn’t about politics or religion. We make a different kind of statement,” Ti-Coca explains. “It’s very light and brings joy, but on top of it, it gives you hope. It gives you hope and carries a lot of faith.”
Center StageSM will bring 10 ensembles from Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan to the U.S. for month-long tours from June-December 2012, connecting artists with diverse communities across the country. Residencies will include performances, workshops, discussions, people-to-people exchanges, and community gatherings. Keep up with Center Stage by liking the program on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/CenterStagePage) and following us on Twitter (@centerstageus).
Center StageSM is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and with additional support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. General management for Center StageSM is provided by Lisa Booth Management.