Over the last several years, a group of musicians and songwriters from four continents traveled to Haiti to record songs inspired by the Caribbean island nation while also helping to educate audio engineering students at the Artists Institute in Jacmel, on the south coast. The collaborative project, facilitated by Jackson Browne and featuring Jenny Lewis, musician/producer Jonathan Wilson, Jonathan Russell (The Head and The Heart), Habib Koité, Raúl Rodríguez, Paul Beaubrun and others, resulted in the World Music album Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1, an 11-song collection released earlier this year that benefits the Artists Institute and Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ).
Sessions took place during two separate trips to the Artists Institute recording studio, which was designed by WSDG Walters-Storyk Design Group. The album was mixed by Dave Cerminara at Browne’s Groove Masters facility in Santa Monica, CA and mastered by Gavin Lurssen at Lurssen Mastering in Los Angeles.
Artists Institute and the Ciné Institute sprang out of the Academy for Artist Peace and Justice, the largest middle and high school on the island, which were established by APJ and filmmaker David Belle, an APJ board member. Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne have provided additional support for the Artists Institute.
Jackson Browne and Jonathan Wilson joined Pro Sound News to talk about Haiti, the Artists Institute and the songs. (Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
On the project’s genesis:
Browne: I think the first time I went to Haiti was in 2015, five years after I had appeared at a benefit to raise money to build the school. They got the school built pretty quick; then, up the coast in Jacmel, they built Ciné Institute, which is a film school, and the Audio Institute, which has a recording studio.
At that first visit to the studio, I saw the opportunity—just like film directors who come from all over to speak at the Ciné Institute, they should have people come record here. Win and Régine had been there and spoken to the kids, but I thought, what needs to happen is for somebody to come and demonstrate how we record.
Wilson: I got a call from Jackson. He wanted to bring some awareness to this awesome studio and the gear. That’s treasured and cherished; they’re so excited about the space. He called a couple people and asked me to call a few folks, and we put together a crew.
On teaching and recording:
Browne: I described the studio to Jonathan and he said, “Let’s get their equipment list.” It was pretty bare bones—a Pro Tools rig and an SSL [AWS900] board. He said, “Let’s bring in some equipment to warm this up and make it interesting for them.” It was about bringing some gear that we would like them to know about. It’s not that they don’t know anything; they just haven’t been shown how to do it. They notice that things can sound a certain way, but they don’t know how it was done.
Wilson: I could tell from looking at the list that we needed some signal chain. We needed some preamps, with some proper circuitry. We went down to Vintage King; those guys were very kind to us. We got a bunch of tube stuff, a 1073, a Manley Vox Box. And we brought down some microphones—old American EVs, a couple of AEAs.
Browne: I talked to [Mojave Audio’s] Dusty Wakeman and he gave us a deal on two tube mics. We brought API gear, Pultecs and Retro compressors. Teaching started the minute we plugged in the gear. That was part of the education of our coming there, and exactly what I hoped for. Just to know that this compression on the drums will make them sound like this; practical information about how to make things sound good.
On the album’s inspiration:
Wilson: We went to a real voodoo ceremony. It started at 6 p.m. and went on for about eight hours. It was a drumming frenzy. That was super cool to see. The interplay of the Haitian drums permeates the whole project. One of the focuses was the truly great drummers.
Browne: Jonathan is a drummer and he played the drums knowing that he wanted to feature the Haitian hand drums; his drumming was providing a setting or a context. At the end of the project, he started laying out this song at the piano. He invited Sanba Zao [of Haitian roots band] Lakou Mizik to play drums and sing, and it turned into that incredible call and response. On that song [“Lape, Lanmou (Peace and Love)”], there’s a moment where there’s suddenly a flute—that’s Habib. When Dave, who mixed the album, turned it up and it became this huge thing, we put the song at the beginning of the album because it demonstrates where the album is going.
I had that little guitar lick and the idea for “Love Is Love”—“Here on the distant sunny shores of an island…” We’re First World tourists. Everybody thinks of tropical places as places of refuge and relaxation, but for the people there, it’s a struggle every day. At the end of the song, I’m talking about Fr. Rick Frechette. He came to Haiti originally as a priest. He said, “They don’t need a priest; they need a doctor.” And he went away and became a doctor and came back and built a hospital. He’s an inspiration.
Jenny Lewis came down with some ideas but realized none of them had anything to do with what she was seeing, especially after we went to the voodoo ceremony. She wrote the song “Under the Supermoon” the next morning and we recorded it that afternoon.
The best part of it was to watch some of these songs become transformed by the whole group—to hear Raúl come in with a song and when we put the Haitian drums to it, it became this whole other thing. We didn’t try to put together a band—it was just a group of people that were interesting as individuals, recording—but we had six songs in five days, so we said, let’s come back and make it a whole album.
Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1 • https://spoti.fi/33SmlGX