Vo-Duo – Nou La (2013)

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To commence Nou La, Vo-Duo sends blessings to the sacred heart of the Asoto drum, to the spirits and finally to the listeners. This modest, exquisite acapella piece, called “Bonjou,” foretells the loveliness and sanctity to come.

For Copenhagen-born percussionist Markus Schwartz and Port-au-Prince-born guitarist and vocalist Monvelyno Alexis, Nou La is not just a statement of their arrival but a statement of intent. The title of their first record translates to “We’re Here,” signifying the objectives of their very special merger of Haitian traditional music and New York-style jazz.

Schwartz grew up in an American household surrounded by the blue notes of jazz, but the last 20 years have been dedicated to learning the complexity of Haitian drum music. Using a set-up that includes the hand drum (tambou), the Peruvian-originated cajon, a tambourine, some bells, and a succession of ride and crash cymbals, Schwartz fluently fuses jazz with voodoo rhythms.

Alexis’ background as a singer and songwriter serves him well. A poet in the Sanba tradition, his fluid guitar-playing serves as a seamless complement to his beautifully lyrical singing. He studied guitar at the Berklee College of Music. His connections with jazz are strong, but his roots in Haiti really inform his creative core.

“Alega Gran Chimen” follows the aforementioned “Bonjou” with a gripping blend of traditions. Alexis channels the worlds of soul music and mysticism with equal measure, while Schwartz builds the percussive platform with instinctive backing. “Pale Mal,” a Haitian folk standard, follows with pretty minor chord progressions and a handsomely reserved Mayi tempo. Both performers provide vocals, telling the tale of becoming submerged by the cruel fiend of mindless blather.

There’s also the wrenching “Frelele,” a piece by Sanba Zao. The potent but controlled tune articulates the journey and struggle for many Haitians, appealing to the warrior spirit (feray) to not forsake the suffering.
The final piece, “Gede Men Lajan” translates to “Gede’s Payment” and appeals to the spirits of voodoo to show the way to health and healing. Once more, Alexis and Schwartz reach harmonically passionate heights.

A penetrating and spiritual record, Nou La displays a musical tradition that doesn’t get much airplay at the best of times. Equally at home in a red-lit club and the temples of voodoo, Vo-Duo performs ritual music that explores our full humanity and artistic yearning for some sliver of truth and understanding.

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