Teachers Recreate Haitian Folk Tales With a New Beat

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Georges Vilson (left) and Michael DeVellis. Photo by Joyann Jeffrey/GlobalCityNYC

Georges Vilson (left) and Michael DeVellis. Photo by Joyann Jeffrey/GlobalCityNYC

A high school teacher is trying to embody traditional Haitian folk tales with a computerized orchestra for the first time.

“I’m paving the way,” said Georges¬†Vilson, commissioner of the orchestrated folk tales CD. There will be 10 songs containing traditional stories including Vilson’s favorite, Dodo the lullaby.

“If you don’t sleep the crab will eat you,” he hummed¬† while remembering his mother’s soft voice singing to him.

Vilson grew up on these traditional Haitian folk tunes. Now, he said, it breaks his heart to see the younger generation unaware of the same songs he learned as a child. Vilson decided that he had to make a change, but also challenge himself at the same time, which led him to the orchestrated tales project.

Of the younger Haitian generation, Vilson said, “I don’t mind you listening to different kinds of music, but you cannot neglect your own.”

Medjie Corrielant, a 19-year-old Haitian-American student at LaGuardia Community College, agrees with Vilson. She confesses that she does not know a lot about Haitian folk tunes.

Vilson’s book, “101 Notated Haitian Folk and Vodou Songs,” helped him start his new project. The book is accompanied by four CDs, two that feature the folk tales on piano and two that have vocals in Creole with Haitian drums. But his new album, coming out in December, will showcase a more classical style of music than traditional.

To achieve this classical style, he gave $4,000 to a fellow music teacher at James Madison High School, Michael DeVellis, who is transforming the 10 traditional folk tunes to orchestration.

“I can do it!” DeVellis said when he first heard about the project. He was worried that his background as a Italian-Irish American might get in the way, but Vilson knew that DeVellis was creative.

The first song on the new album is “Sou Lanme,” where the god of the ocean, Agwe, walks on land to cure the goddess of love, Ezili. Using the innocent voice of the woodwinds, DeVellis depicts the soldiers’ calm approach onto land before a cannon interrupts the sweet harmony. Every shot fired from the cannon is used to carve the intimidating personality of Agwe.

Shortly after, the brass section overpowers the quiet woodwinds to represent the power, influence and intimidation of Agwe and his army. But before Agwe can reach Ezili, she falls sick to her illness and dies in a cold slumber. The music ends at its climax where all of the instruments are shouting in harmony, giving the goddess a triumphant death.

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To portray these vivid scenes and personalities, DeVellis uses a computer program called Logic Pro 9, on which he imitates the sounds, harmonies and vibrancies of a live orchestra through a 27-inch iMac.

“It’s a trial and error sometimes,” DeVellis said, but “I have not found it at all challenging” to mix the computerized sounds to real solo musicians.

In late October, the two high school teachers began work in the studio, costing Vilson $6,000 more. To pay a live orchestra will cost Vilson a lot more money that he does not have, but “I want to show the world, including Haiti that although they are simple sounds we can embellish them,” he said.

Vilson does not know what he will call the album or how he will distribute the CD, but he knows that he wants to put Haiti on the map. DeVellis, who is still learning about Haitian culture, said, “Regardless of what happens with this CD, I feel that I have learned so much.” Vilson, on the other hand, does not care if the listeners are into the CD or not. He simply said, “they’ll get used to it.”

DeVellis is currently writing the last song that will be displayed on the album. One of the powerful songs on the CD is “Ogou Ann Ale.” Starting with the faint sound of old shackles rattling and war horns in the distant background, it captures the listener’s attention. The drums beat slowly, creating anxiety over what may happen next.

The comrades of Ogou, the war god, hurry him out of the battlefield because their enemies are near. Although Ogou hears his comrades’ concerns, he decides to carry the dead and wounded back to camp so they will not be forgotten. DeVellis creates a war scene with sharp violins and horns that crescendo into the rising fear of Ogou’s comrades.

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This is a new fusion of music that has never been done before. But due to the success of Vilson’s last four CDs, Dahoud Andre, an activist in the Haitian community, is excited for this new collusion.

“He has earned the right to express himself culturally,” said Andre. “I’ll wait to see what comes out.”

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