“Little Drummer Boy”
Musician Remembers Christmas Past While Producing Holiday Play
By MacollvieJean-François Haitian Times Staff
NEW YORK – Drummer Jean Robert Jean-Pierre plays diligently in a Midtown music studio, flanked by guitarists and a pianist on the right, drummers and conga player on the left and a conductor in front of him.
The group was rehearsing for “How Papa Noel Forgot Haiti,” MapouProductions’ year-end offering, in collaboration with Muzik Arts, to be presented at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on Christmas Eve.
After a playing classical piece, the ensemble tackled a distinctively Haitian, upbeat number that motivated “Jean Jean” to sway and throw his head back as he slammed the drumsticks on the drums.“That was good,” he said minutes later, exuding a relaxed air with his head-bopping and ready smile.
Conductor Gary Topper, however, said he believed the group had gone on for too long. He said certain sections of “Celina,” as the piece is called, should stop at some point to give some of the musicians and audience a breather.
“But that’s how we used to do it in [Haiti],” said Jean-Pierre, a former drummer with Bossa Combo, smiling and looking around the room for confirmation. Those familiar with Haitian musicians agreed, adding their own, “Yeah, all night.”
Topper said, “Isn’t that after drinking and smoking?” They all laughed, each remembering their experiences with musicians whose measuring stick was the amount of pleasure they felt and noticed in the crowd, not necessarily the number of bars on a sheet.
The combination of the two – traditional Haitian mastery and academic refinement – is what Jean-Pierre seeks, in hopes of reaching a cross-section of audiences.
“He’s taking the same kind of music the guys used to play in Haiti back in the day, taking the same concepts without losing its essence and adapting it to make it fit so that people today can understand and enjoy it,” guitarist MakariosCesaire said.
Jean-Pierre, founder of Mapou Productions and the Jean Jean-Pierre Orchestra said: “My goal is to defend, restore, and promote this culture.”
The Lincoln Center atmosphere will most likely not be as lively as an outdoor concert underneath the stars of a tropical sky that Jean-Pierre’s heroes lostthemselves under. Guests expected to attend were present at MapouProductions’ Carnegie Hall events and are drawn by the promise of the nostalgic tribute to their homeland, the First Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere.
This 200th anniversary year has proven to be disappointing for many Haitians and supporters of Haiti. When Mapou presented “Happy Birthday, Haiti” in January, violence surged in the Caribbean country as groups clashed over Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency. People clucked their tongues, shook their heads, and began asking how the “Pearl of the Antilles” could have degraded so horribly.
Natural and political disasters have victimized Haitians throughout the year, motivating Jean-Pierre to reclaim the beautiful parts that seem to be fading.
“It brings you closer to your country,” said Jean-Pierre, a Spring Valley, N.Y.-resident for 30 years. “It forces you to identify with your country and to work so that things like that are repeated.”
Jean-Pierre was in Haiti when Aristide resigned under pressure from the United States and France in February. When he saw the French soldiers landing in the country for the first time since Haitian slaves kicked them out and claimed their independence, Jean-Pierre said he nearly vomited.
Such realities are far from what the scriptwriter could concoct for the stage or had hoped for his beloved country. Now in his 50s, Jean-Pierre grew up inThorland,a neighborhood of Carrefour, a Port-au-Prince suburb, before FrançoisDuvalier came to power and during his regime’s start.
Mom Marienonthe Ridore took her only child to the open-air theatre at theBicentennaire weekly and movies. She allowed him to see matinees by himself by age 10.
While other kids played soccer during the 1950’s, Jean-Pierre said his 8-year-old mind pondered the images he saw and heard on television, at concerts, and from the radio.
“The first time I heard cymbals, I thought it was an explosion,” Jean-Pierre said. “Later when I began studying music, I saw that is what cymbals are used for.”
Around that age, Jean-Pierre took a blade, cut into his mother’s old Philippsradio “to see the guy hiding in there.” “I got a beating, but I was always fascinated,” he said. “The music appealed to me. The music was the magic.”
By the time he left Haiti for the United States in 1974, an Afro-sporting Jean-Pierre was skillful enough to get gigs with rhythm-and-blues bands that played funky grooves he learned about by watching blaxploitation films in Port-au-Prince.
Though he enjoyed traveling with rock and funk bands, Jean-Pierre felt he was losing his background.
He credits Bossa Combo founders Michel Desgrottes, Hansy Desroses and theDjazz des Jeunes orchestra for cultivating his music sense. Composer AntalcidesMurat taught him to read music while Jean-Pierre was still a teenager.
In New York, they serve as Jean-Pierre’s muses. The music courses he took at colleges help him put his memories to paper also. The result is scenes like the one with the objecting conductor, but more often, it gives audiences a chance to enjoy an eclectic genre and reminisce.
Of the Djazz des Jeunes bass line used for “Celina,” he added: “It feels like wedon’t do that enough, and I want to preserve it.”
Jean-Pierre’s Mapou has organized productions and released an album of classic Haitian pieces on it’s “Happy Birthday Haiti” released earlier this year. Big names such as Jonathan Demme, Danny Glover and Michael Ratner are among those onMapou’s board of directors. Besides providing financial support, Demme and Glover contribute their creative talent – Demme with consulting on the script for “Papa Noel,” and Glover by starring in the presentation as legendary ToussaintLouverture.
Glover says the company now based at the Atlantic Center Mall – owned byRatner brother Bruce – in Brooklyn has been struggling financially from the onset. It is dependent on donations and volunteers. Ticket sales from the venues, which Jean-Pierre said are chosen because they have great acoustic capability, do not always cover the costs. Carnegie Hall concerts cost $135,000; “Papa Noel” may be $150,000, he said.
“We’re always scrapping,” he said. “That’s always been our weakness.”
Jean-Pierre said they did not have much time to prepare for this joint venture between Mapou and Muzik Arts’ Alex Villier. This play written in August, with music arranged in September, should have taken a year, he said. He has had to set other projects aside to work full time on the Carnegie concert.
Jean-Pierre expects running the company to be difficult, because it has to do with Haiti. “Anytime someone is involved in anything having to do with Haiti, it’s an uphill battle.””