L’Orchestre Tropicana d'Haïti  


  Singers included Paul Edouard Jean " Polo", Samuel Menard, Jean Claude Jacques, Luc Doralus, Philome Pansier Fils Aime
April 11-12, 2003

Written by Hortense Fuller

Photos by William Farrington

Of the legendary big bands of Haiti, L’Orchestre Tropicana d'Haïti remains the only one still performing.  They recently performed twice in New York City, first at SOBs for the late-night Friday French Caribbean series on April 11th, and the day later at a larger festival in Queens that included a live radio broadcast.  The performances were significant because this year marks their 40th anniversary as a group.  The band expects to return to Haiti following the New York concerts to work on their current projects.


The trumpet section included Smith Vixamar, Lovely Joanis and Louis Jean Julien


We learned that L'Orchestre Tropicana d'Haïti will launch a world-wide tour this summer to coincide with their  40th Anniversary.  The tour will take them to Europe, North America and the Caribbean, with goals of reaching their fans.  The success of groups such as Buena Vista, Orchestra Baobab, Bembeya Jazz and the Super Rail Band are examples of the a growing appreciation of large ensembles playing music of bygone eras that are being appreciated by younger generations.  L'Orchestre Tropicana d'Haïti is another of these classic ensembles that has been overlooked outside of its homeland.  We at AfricaSounds find it frustrating that these bands have been until recently overlooked and highly recommend seeking them out and supporting them.



Speaking before the concert, Maestro Cinna Octavius Charles " Ti Blanc", the band leader and alto saxophonist told us that the orchestra is currently finalizing their new studio recording which will present something new for fans while staying rooted in the orchestra’s tradition.  The songs will be re-workings of the band’s classics from their massive archives, and will include an all-star line up of the legends of Haitian chanson.  The invitees will read like a who’s-who of Haitian singers, many of whom gained their initial inspiration from classic orchestras such as Tropicana.



The band is a renowned national institution within Haiti, a veritable cultural treasure.  A band spokesperson informed us that the orchestra has even created a formal pension plan intended to care for its aging musicians. However, they have wisely recruited youth within their ranks, increasing our hopes the longevity of the orchestra and keeping the creative process lively and not a repertory ensemble.

Maestro Cinna Octavius Charles " Ti Blanc" on alto sax  

The Cap Haitien based band often participates in Port-au-Prince's annival carnival.  Tonight, with 22 musicians, the orchestra was a sight to be seen, and an increasing rarity in an era where typically only streamlined versions of bands are toured on the international circuit.  From the first notes of the concert, it was evident that we were in for a classic, and somewhat nostalgic, treat. Jean Charles, a leading playright in the Haitian community, explained that the only other remaining legendary big band in Haiti is Septentrional, which over the years has been in fierce rivalry with Tropicana, proving invigorating for both bands.



Maestro Cinna Octavius Charles " Ti Blanc" on alto sax and Jacques Jean Claude Joseph on tenor sax  

The sassy and melodic lead horn lines punched through the solid rhythm and bass foundation of the orchestra's rhythm section.  



The trumpet section included Smith Vixamar, Lovely Joanis and Louis Jean Julien



A front line of male vocalists provided multi-layered harmonies and took turns as soloists, singing in Creole, French and Spanish.  Perhaps most notable was the band’s ease and success at navigating through a remarkably diverse set of rhythms including compas, meringues, rumba and swing.  These rhythms were laced with influences of salsa, samba, funk, R&B and formal dance from another era.



Maestro Cinna Octavius Charles " Ti Blanc" on alto sax

On a majority of songs, the horns would serenade the audience with layered, crisp arrangements that were as complex and tightly woven as the best New York salsa brass bands. The trumpets were all grouped to the left of the stage and the saxophones to the right, providing a terrific sonic balance.  These two horn sections traded off lead horn lines with each other in fantastic interplay. The five lead male vocalists provided call and response harmonies and traded off their soloing from the front line. Then, several minutes into each composition, the horns would drop out paving the way for other instrumentalists to take lead.  The rhythm was the essence of the music, the piano swirling dashes of color over the musical canvas.


Ernest Denis on Conga drums


Percussive conga breaks complemented the drum kit and together they lead the tempos to an accelerated overdrive.  It didn't take much urging to fill the dance floor with couples, many of whom seemed to be instantly transported to a different time and era.  The fascinating thing to me was the shift within one song from the formalized orchestrations to the more energetic improvisations and then back again.  The audience seemed to take it all in stride and didn't miss a beat.  To our delight, many compositions were drawn out long enough to allow each of the 22 band members time to solo and improvise.


In particular, the keyboardist often led the way during the breakout solo, adding a myriad of unique sounding voices (one of which sounded similar to a penny-whistle on reverb) that swirled upwards over band's distinctive lilt.  During these solos, we noticed the same phenomenon that occurred at the live Congolese rumba of Zaiko Langa Langa in which dancing couples separated themselves slightly to groove and freeform dancing to the irresistible beat.


The bassist was expressive and laid down a solid foundation for the orchestra while the guitarists shifted effortlessly between the swing of classic Haitian compas in the style of the late Coupe Cloue to swirling solos that hinted of classic Congolese rumba.  The band was tight but could also loosen up and jam in a fashion that proved that these veterans had been playing together for years.



In oversight, the event was remarkable for three reasons. First, it was a treat to witness the big-band formation with the depth of a two live horn sections, an increasing rarity that permitted the nostaligic orchestra sound. Second, an amazing multitude of musical and cultural traditions of Haiti and the Diaspora were incorporated into the dense musical stew.   Third, there was a fantastic juxtaposition between the formalized compositions of the big-band tradition and the lengthy jam sessions in which the band allowed itself to loosen up and show us some terrific improvisation.  The band will have its warm-up tour in May taking them to Guadeloupe on May 22nd, Martinique on May 23rd and Guyanne on May 24-25th.  They were invited by Fidel Castro to fete their actual anniversary at the legendary Cuban night club that are named after, the Havana Tropicana.  Finally, their world tour will bring the band back to New York.  Word to the wise - catch this orchestra on it's next stop through town.