One of the very few positive developments to come out of the era of western imperialism was the spread of classical music around the globe. One of the most fascinating and lyrical albums of chamber music from over the past several months is cellist Diana Golden and pianist Shawn Chang’s collection of works by Haitiian composers, Tanbou Kache, streaming at Bandcamp.
The title means “hidden drum” in kreyol. Just as the clave is ubiquitous in latin music, the vodou drum rhythm – a similarly African import – persists in much of Haitian music, whether outright or implied. As is the case with many global traditions where the culture has been repressed by tyrannical regimes, Haitian popular song is ripe with signification and subtle political subtext. How much of that translates to the compositions here?
As you might imagine from the instrumentation, much of this is on the somber side. The duo open with early 20th century composer Justin Élie’s Légende Créole, a disquieted neoromantic piece originally for violin and piano with a fleetingly blithe interlude midway through. Golden takes her time expressively with the chromatics and minor-key solemnity of Werner Jaegerhuber’s Petite Suite for Solo Cello. While it’s another early 20th century work, it draws a straight line back to Bach, in terms of melody if not thematic development.
Contemporary composer Julio Racine’s arrangement of 20th century classical guitarist Frantz Casséus’ Suite Haïtienne makes a return to sober, spacious minor-key neoromanticism with dark folk tinges in the opening movement. Golden and Chang wistfully parse the second movement before Chang picks up with a merengue-inspired bounce in the third and in the vigorous conclusion, originally a hit for Harry Belafonte with the composer on guitar.
Carmen Brouard, one of the prime movers in 20th century Haitian composition, died at 96 in 2005. Sadly, it wasn’t until she moved to Montreal that she began to earn recognition beyond the land of her birth. Her Duo Sentimental, a song without words, alternates between a distantly acerbic, dancing anthemic sensibiilty and Brahmsian familiarity.
Julio Racine is represented by his Sonate à Cynthia, written in 2014 and the most recent piece here. The simmering, Piazzolla-esque passion of the opening movement gives Chang a welcome moment to come to the forefront, while Golden’s plaintive phrasing takes over at the end. The second has a broodingly chromatic, anthemic sway; Golden’s trills fuel the coda at the end. It’s arguably the album’s most memorable work.
The duo follow with a moody, minimalist, bluesy Daniel Bernard Roumain miniature and conclude the record with two works by another contemporary composer, Jean “Rudy” Perrault. Still Around, for solo cello has more distant Bach echoes than the first solo cello piece here.
Brother Malcolm… for cello and piano imagines Martin Luther King and Malcolm X discussing Barack Obama’s inauguration via a sternly crescendoing, Romantic trajectory, and what seems like very guarded triumph.
Beyond the sheer emotional impact of the music, this album has enormous historical value. If the rest of the Haitian classical repertoire is anything like this, it should be vastly better known.