Port-au-Prince Jazz fest comes to Little Haiti Cultural Center

The group Bwakoré performs at the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival in January.

When most people think of Haitian music, the music of Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington isn’t what comes to mind.

But ask Grammy winner saxophonist and arranger Felipe Lamoglia what it’s like to play jazz in the Caribbean island with its scores of musical grooves and roots rhythms, and he’ll tell you, “it’s an amazing experience.”

“People in Haiti are really interested in that kind of music,” said Lamoglia.

Lamoglia, who was born in Cuba and lives in Miami, is among dozens of musicians from around the globe who have traveled to Haiti in recent years to participate in the country’s premier jazz showcase, the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival. The annual festival takes place every January, and now after eight editions, is coming to Miami.

“The idea is for us to showcase the festival to the Haitian diaspora and to any Haiti lovers out there,” said Milena Sandler Widmaier, who with her musician husband Joel Widmaier, are the festival organizers.

The couple say the goal is to eventually showcase the festival in several U.S. cities in hopes of introducing both Haitians and non-Haitians to another side of the country’s rhythms. They also want to grow the popularity of the festival, which last year attracted about 12,000 people after it opened in Port-au-Prince with Cameroon-born soul singer Sandra Nkaké.

With her Annie Lennox iconic moves, and Grace Jones looks, Nkaké rocked the audience of foreign diplomats, Haitian businessmen and jazz aficionados into multiple standing ovations on opening night.

But having such big names isn’t cheap, even though the festival gets support from local foreign embassies, which help sponsor the event by flying in their own jazz stars. That’s why, Sandler Widmaier said, the Miami event this weekend will also feature a Friday fundraiser, as well as a 10 a.m. to noon workshop on Creole Jazz Saturday followed by two both back-to-back concerts. All events are taking place at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 N.E. 59th Terr.

The first concert kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59th Terr. Cost is $40.

It will feature the United International Jazz Band, with Lamoglia playing tenor sax; singer Beatriz Malnic from Brazil; pianist Michael Horta and bass player Don Wilner from the United States; and Haitian jazz stars, saxophonist Jowee Omicil, guitarist Chardavoine and drummer Harvel Nakundi. Joel Widmaier, who is also a musician, will join in on percussions and vocals.

A free concert will follow at 8 p.m. in the cultural center’s courtyard with the Haitian roots fusion band Boukan Ginen and guitarist Chardavoine. The band is best known for having the best 1991 carnival song Pale Pale W (Talk) and for having it music banned by the military junta that toppled then Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup.

The fundraising cocktail will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the cultural center. It’s free with donations accepted and will feature a double exhibits and silent auction inside the Little Haiti Cultural Cultural Center Gallery. One of the exhibits, An’n Ale (Let’s Go) pays tribute to Toto Bissainthe, an actress, singer, composer and author. It is being sponsored by South Florida’s Green Family Foundation and will be up until Sept. 29th.

Born in 1934, Bissainthe died in 1984 of liver cancer. She is a pioneer of Haiti’s modern Rasin music genre and is known for mixing traditional Haitian roots rhythms with modern lyrics to tell the story of Haitians’ struggle. She is also Sandler Widmaier’s mother.

Visitors will be able to learn about Bissainthe’s life through 18 video testimonies, 30 photos and excerpts of interviews by the late singer and actress who was born in 1934 and died of liver cancer in 1984.

“She really had something that she brought not just musically but as an actress,” Sandler Widmaier said. “This is a way to keep alive her memory. She really made a difference and the young generation know nothing about her. It’s important for young people to know what she achieved.”

Omicil, who was among the early performers at the festival, said this weekend’s concerts aren’t just about showcasing the festival. It’s a chance to introduce both Haitians and non-Haitian audiences to another side of the music, and the country.

Recalling a recent trip to the French island, Martinique, he said Haitian rhythms are highly popular.

“My entire band, knew the Haitian repertoire better than me,” he said. “People are interested in what we are doing, and how we are evolving.”

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