Haitian-born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun said in a recent interview, “my musical influence is African music. When you look at western music, you see rock, blues, reggae, roots, jazz, soul and R&B. They are all brothers and sisters expressing themselves differently — but they are all from the same mother Africa.”
He has brought these musical influences and his rich voice, electrifying bluesy guitar and dynamic energy to a collaboration with Jackson Browne and others in Jacmel, Haiti, for a benefit album, Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1. The album was released in January and its proceeds support the Haitian non-profit, Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ), which addresses issues of peace, social justice and poverty in the country and helps those in need through education, healthcare and other means.
Beaubrun’s songs inspire activism and unity. It’s a tradition he has inherited from his socially conscious musical family; he sings in English, French and Creole, so he can be heard in many circles. He has traveled internationally as a solo artist and as the frontman of the dynamic band Zing Experience; has played with Arcade Fire, Bob Weir and others; and has opened for Ms. Lauryn Hill and Robert Glasper. When I served as producer of Montclair’s Concert for Haiti, he was featured at shows for six consecutive years and always elevated the conversation about Haiti and the mood with his powerful songs. His infectious energy and indefatigable spirit consistently brought the benefit’s audience members to their feet.
Now based in New York, Beaubrun, who fled Haiti to live in the United States when he was 17, submitted his gorgeous song “Surrender,” co-written with Browne and included on Let the Rhythm Lead, to NJArts.net Songs to See Us Through series. The song’s video is spectacular, with images of Haiti’s beautiful beaches and Jacmel’s winding roads, and of Beaubrun, Browne and others playing together. I’ve seen Beaubrun in New York, the Hudson Valley and Montclair, and he’s always relaxed, but he seems particularly at peace in these video clips of him walking the streets and on the roads of his country.
“I co-wrote the song with Jackson Browne three years ago in Jacmel and it’s about letting go, not forcing anything, living in the moment, and has a message to always continue searching for hope, love and unity,” said Beaubrun. For those of us who have lost loved ones or jobs and miss normal patterns of life — like hugging and mingling — the song provides a framework to get through tough times.
Longing for a world non-divided
Search for the love, you can find it
The mystery is yours to answer
Oh, oh, oh surrender…
I just sing the dream that you inspire
Your heart through my strings lit on fire
Long live a soul, long live a life
Don’t give up, baby
Hope is where you find it, just look for it
During the pandemic, Beaubrun, along with all New Yorkers, lived through the dystopian reality that his hometown was the epicenter of the coronavirus. “We are living in a strange and rare time in our history,” he said.
During “our current climate,” he said, “it’s time for us to go within and look at ourselves, at the relationship we have with ourselves and to surrender to whatever comes, accept it and adjust while maintaining harmonious and unifying hope and love.” “Surrender” expresses his coping mantra during social distancing, though he remains active recording music and performing online shows from his home (he hopes to resume touring in March).
Ten years after the devastating 2010 earthquake killed an estimated 160,000 people (or more, some argue), Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is still plagued by political instability, economic woes and wide-spread food insecurity. While the album may not change the political order or the conditions of life there, it serves as a window into a resilient society whose collective concerns and protests should be supported.
This album’s performers hail from multiple countries, including Mali and Spain, and mix indie rock with rhythms from Haitian vodou.
In addition to Browne and Beaubrun, Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1 features Jenny Lewis, Jonathan Wilson, flamenco guitarist Raúl Rodriguez, Jonathan Russell of The Head and the Heart, Habib Koité from Mali, and members of the Haitian roots band Lakou Mizik. In this video about the album’s production, we hear Browne say he served as a “facilitator” for improvisational and spontaneous contributions of each member of the group.
Beaubrun described the circumstances leading to recording the album: “I met Jackson (Browne) in Jacmel, Haiti near the beach. He was just standing there sipping on some rhum and just like that, my friend David Belle (a filmmaker and philanthropist) introduced us. That same night we jammed with some of the local musicians, along with Jon Russell, and that’s how Jackson had the idea to come back to Haiti for a song summit. He invited some of his friends to be a part of it.”
He added, “When we came back to Haiti to record the album, I played the idea of the song ‘Surrender’ to Jackson and he loved it. We naturally started to work on it together and made it a story.”
Beaubrun contributed to all of the albums’s other songs as well. “I played bass on almost all of the songs, guitar and percussion on some, arranged one of them and I did some background vocals,” he said.
The album’s catchy and emotive “Love Is Love” was co-written by Browne and Belle in 2016. “The song is a testament to Jackson’s sensitivity to the world and particularly Haiti,” said Beaubrun. This video of Browne performing the song with Beaubrun, Russell and Wilson acknowledges the strength and spirit of the country, despite its years of crises, including interference by the United States government.
Browne shares his familiar voice in celebration of Haiti, singing:
Here on a distant sunny shore of an island
All the troubles of the world seem far away
But here on the broken city streets of the island
People work and live and love and struggle every day …
Rick rides a motorbike through the worst slums of the city
The father and the doctor to the poorest of the poor
Raising up the future from the rubble of the past
Here, they say, ‘l’espoir fait vivre,’ ‘hope makes life.’
Browne has long made music about social justice, the environment and other issues and showed an interest in Haiti in the title track on his 2014 album, Standing in the Breach. It’s an eloquent song, written after his visit to Haiti, when the country was still ravaged by the 2010 earthquake. The song references the earthquake as well as the continued conditions and inequities that initially paved the way for slavery there. He dedicates the song to APJ in this video.
The son of Theodore “Lolo” Beaubrun and Mimerose “Manzè” Beaubrun, co-founders of Grammy-nominated Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans, Paul Beaubrun has been raised on rebellious music.
“Boukman” is derived from Boukman Dutty, a Jamaican-born leader of enslaved people and vodou priest who inspired rebellion; Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery and the only country formed by a successful slave revolt, achieving sovereignty in 1804. “Eksperyans,” the Creole word for experience, was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s music.
The band combines Haitian vodou music with rock ‘n’ roll, and their “Ke’m Pa Sote” captured the attention of Haitians as a song protesting the living conditions under the post-Duvalier military government. Paul Beaubrun continues in his parents’ tradition of singing about cultural pride and social justice.
He expresses gratitude that he and his family have survived after exile in 2004 from the political turmoil in Haiti in the thoughtful title track to his 2018 album, Ayibobo, which means “blessings” in Creole. The lyrics address his experience fleeing Haiti during the coup that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It was a scary, lonely time for Beaubrun and his raw, powerful guitar expresses his emotional state. He sings with pain and passion, weaving Haitian roots music together with rock ‘n’ roll and reggae and referencing his mother:
I heard my mama screaming
As gunman stood waiting
I spent week in hiding, moving from house to house
Now I’m miles and miles away singin’ what my mama taught me.
Woke up this morning, last night mama was in my dream
Looking at me straight in the eyes and she says
You don’t have to cry no more
You don’t have to hide no more.
His enthusiasm was contagious when he sang — with a spiritual wail — this very personal song at Montclair’s Concert for Haiti each year. He engaged the audience to sing back the word “Ayibobo,” moving many of us and creating unity among strangers.
He said Boukman Eksperyans was “a school of deep learning for me and so many others. I am grateful to have parents like that. They gave me guidance every step of the way when I need them, but they also let me be free and experience and learn on my own … I admire their courage to write socially conscious songs and they definitely inspire me.”
His latest album with Zing Experience and other Haitian artists, Rasanbleman (Red Moon), was released in April. “Rasanbleman” means, according to Beaubrun, “large gathering” in Creole, which reminds me of the summits that Browne organized to create Let the Rhythm Lead.
The last video, below, is of one of the most meditative and uplifting songs from Rasanbleman, “Vodou Ceremony,” featuring Michael Brun and Boukman Eksperyans. Beaurun wrote the song “maybe 10 years ago,” he said. “It is a (song of) spiritual liberation and to me it means unity and freedom of self.”
The video invites you to get lost in its trance-like sound, which I hope enables you to find some musical peace in the turbulent, disquieting noise of life.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
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