Since the release of Arcade Fire's 2004 debut album "Funeral," which prominently featured the song "Haiti," it became evident that the Canadian band had influences from the Caribbean nation running through their veins, literally in the case of co-bandleader Regine Chassange, whose family had long ago fled the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime for the safety of Montreal.
But it wasn't until the new record "Reflektor" that their inspiration and passion for this country flourished from the artwork to the videos to the music itself.
When the band announced their participation in Jacmel's 2014 Carnival in late February -- known locally as Kanaval and one of the region's largest Mardis Gras celebrations -- I knew it was going to be a unique experience and the perfect place to watch them perform this new material. It reminded me of when Paul Simon's "Graceland" came out, that despite all the cultural appropriation controversy it generated, the music's geography was key to its transcendence as an art piece. Furthermore, it established an important cultural bridge that would later leave an open field for new artistic proposals.
A similar pattern took place when the contagious and powerful rara street music that exists in the air of Haiti drove Arcade Fire to step away from their "Suburbs" surroundings. The desire for this change became evident when they opened for Haitian favorites RAM back in 2012 at a Partners For Health benefit concert. The experience of playing their rock-oriented songs to this audience unfamiliar with the genre led them to create a record that they could play in Haiti and make the crowd dance.
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The results of this challenge came clear as the carnival audience at Place Toussaint Louverture was caught off guard when the rara-inspired intro to "Here Comes The Night Time" came in blasting at the end of the show. This was the very instant when everything fell into place. Not only did Arcade Fire achieve their ultimate goal to make Haitians dance to their songs, but this also became a milestone in their career as they pushed boundaries and evolved as creative artists.
Without a doubt, this band has helped spread the rich culture and identity of Haiti throughout the world. They've achieved this not only through their music and interviews and donating money from their tours, but also launching the charitable organization Kanpe and getting involved with the Cine Institute students (who produced their unique "Just a Reflektor" music video).
When we first spotted the "Reflektor" graffiti on the streets back in September of 2013, it created enough expectations for us to be on the look out for any updates regarding the album campaign. This included the awesome/chaotic SNL Special, their custom made Haitian Kanaval masks, and ultimately, their brilliant double album.
All of this motivated three twentysomethings to embark on a new adventure and travel to their neighbor country.
I picked up the phone and called my best friend, Hilda Pellerano, who for five straight years has photographed and documented a wide range of artists, both in the Dominican Republic and New York City. Right away I explained to her why AF's history and passion for the country would make this one of the most memorable shows both the band and we would ever experience. The trip sounded much like a fun adventure but it wasn't easy to arrange.
In the Dominican Republic, we were brought up in an environment of uncertainty, conflict, and rejection towards the nation of Haiti. News usually revolved around the political and economic tension between the two countries. History books and charity work gave us the illusion of having all the knowledge we needed and wanted. Therefore, there was nothing to spark any new kind of interest.
It took a Canadian band and a passion for art and music to burst the bubble of ignorance we had been living in.
Despite all the evident struggles and poverty in Haiti, there is a beauty in the landscape that demands great attention. As we made it to Port-au-Prince, we were immediately drawn to the people running in the middle of the streets, the amazing illustrations on public cars, and the strong presence of music in their daily lives. The amount of adrenaline in this place was just enough to worry you and excite you at the same time.
After two hours, we arrived to Jacmel. The scenery was breathtaking; we couldn't help feel in awe of all the gorgeous, huge peaks that were hard to ignore. Also, the weather at this point was cooler than ever, creating a serene feeling as it finally kicked in that we were actually going to experience Arcade Fire in this remarkable land.
(Chassagne herself had only visited Jacmel's Kanaval for the first time last year, as she told the Montreal Gazette. "It was literally one of the most beautiful experiences I had ever witnessed. I had been to Haiti many times to check out the work Kanpe was doing, but I'd never been just to go there and get into the spirit.")
We make it to Place Toussaint Louverture around 9PM, still in time to enjoy the complete, Win Butler-curated lineup (Kreyolla, RAM, BélO, DJ Tony Mix, Hotmen Rap, Lakou Mizik, 45 Soldiers, DJ Gardy, J-Perry, Rara Fanm). It was interesting to see Butler and his band mates standing sidestage and admiring the unique sets by the other artists. One of these musicians included BélO, a jaw-dropping singer-songwriter, whom I discovered through Arcade Fire. Coming across BélO’s music, as well as all these new artists we were exposed to was another great perk we received from this trip.
Arcade Fire was involved in production and working hard to ensure everything would run smoothly. Backstage, the overall feel was a very humble one. There were no egos, no pretentiousness, no bad tempers, and everyone was treated equally -- in fact, Arcade Fire wasn't even headlining. All this humility came through when their instruments were delayed by immigration until about an hour prior to the performance. Still, they were as calm as can be, even when forced to do sound check right in front of the audience.
The masterful way they handled themselves and the love of their craft instantly transmitted to the crowd and made them react to this new music they were listening to. To us, the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime eye opening to both great music and the wonders of a striking, beautiful country.
It was evidently a moving moment for the band, as well. "I see my mother everywhere," Chassagne told a reporter from the Guardian. "I just feel normal -- more normal -- here. I feel like it makes sense of me."