The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was devastating, with a death toll estimated at more than 100,000 and many more people displaced.
Steeve Valcourt saw the people, young and old, living in tents outside the recording studio where he worked in Port-au-Prince. As a musician and recording engineer, the first thing he thought of was music and its power to lift people’s spirits, at least a little. So he and a couple other musicians took a few instruments and began playing a concert outside for the homeless.
“There were young and old there, all ages, so we did traditional music that your grandfather would know, and we did some rap for younger people,” said Valcourt, 35. “We played that one time and the kids asked us, ‘When are you coming back?’ So we came back every two days or so.”
The band that started to spread a little joy to earthquake survivors is still performing today, traveling the world playing traditional Haitian music and spreading the message that Haiti, despite all its problems, is a vibrant and happy place. The band, now known as Lakou Mizik, has nine members ranging in age from about 19 to 69. They’ll bring their upbeat sound and message to Rockland’s Strand Theatre on Friday and to Portland’s Space Gallery on Saturday.
Take a listen to “Pran Ka Mwen” from Lazou Mizik
Singing in both French and Haitian creole, the band sings traditional Haitian folk songs that are upbeat and rhythmic, making it easy to dance and clap along. They use accordion, a traditional one-note Haitian horn, hand drums and guitars. While music from other Caribbean islands are known for steel drums and a laid-back vibe, Haitian music is often punctuated by hand-clapping rhythms and call and response parts that remind one of American R&B and soul recordings.
“The vibe is energetic, upbeat, people will be dancing all night long,” said Valcourt.
Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, was colonized by France in the 1600s and 1700s. Many French started sugar plantations, importing thousands of slaves from Africa. Today, the island’s French and African histories are mixed, with French and Haitian creole being the official languages.
The word “lakou” in the band’s name is a Haitian creole word that means both your forefathers and “your backyard,” said Valcourt. It’s both a place you feel safe and a personal history that can guide you in the future, he said. “Mizik” means music. The band has recorded one album, “Wa Di Yo,” which means roughly “go and tell them.” And that’s what Lakou Mizik does, Valcourt says; they tell the world about Haiti by performing Haitian music wherever they can.
Many of the old Haitian folk songs the band plays are passed down orally, and some are stories with no ending, so the band writes words to finish the stories off, Valcourt said.
One song is about a boy who goes off to sell coffee to help his family, but the family doesn’t know what happens to him. In their re-written ending, the boy comes home, and the family is reunited, said Valcourt.
Valcourt grew up in Haiti’s music business. His father, Boulo Valcourt, is a musical legend in Haiti, playing in blues, jazz and roots bands, including the Caribbean Sextet. Valcourt himself is a guitarist, singer and recording engineer. He also teaches sound engineering in Haiti.
Valcourt lived in the United States for a while, attending high school and college in New York. But he said he chose to go back to Haiti to live and work because of the deep connection he feels with the place, its culture and its music.
“What we’re trying to do is make people aware of Haiti,” said Valcourt. “The news about Haiti is often about how we’re in a bad spot, but there is a lot of positivity and love here too.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Strand Theatre, 345 Main St., Rockland
HOW MUCH: $20 in advance, $25 at the door