Richard Bona, Mandekan Cubano Transcend Cultures at Port-Au-Prince Jazz Festival
Posted 2/11/2013

It would be hard to think of a more challenging spot in the Americas to put on a jazz festival, but producers Joel and Milena Sandler Widmaier have done it seven times with the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince. Needless to say, the festival was canceled in 2010 after the city was devastated by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

The 2013 edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince ensued on Jan. 19–26 and featured musicians from 13 countries. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis headlined the opening performance, which took place in the town of Jacmel, and bassist Richard Bona and his Afro-Cuban group Mandekan Cubano rounded out the lineup, closing out the fest on Jan. 26. In between, a variety of lesser-known international and Haitian artists—including the popular local guitarist Belo—appeared at free and ticketed events at multiple venues, offered daytime clinics to aspiring local players, and jammed into the night at post-show after-parties.

Apart from the physical difficulty of presenting an international event after a debilitating natural disaster, resources are scarce, and the country’s critical infrastructure is lacking. It then falls to the musicians to be border-crossers.

The festival’s final concert was held outdoors at the Parc Historique de la Canne à Sucre. The venue is a former sugar mill on the site of an 1803 military victory by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a key figure of Haitian independence. Heavy rains had taken out the roof over the stage the night before, but the final night was a clear, warm one, the stage lit under a full moon. Amid a collection of 19th-century sugar-processing and rum-distilling equipment, Cameroonian bassist and all-around polymath Richard Bona connected with the audience through an Africanized take on Cuban dance music.

Entirely self-educated, Bona speaks 11 languages alongside his vast musical vocabulary. His band, Mandekan Cubano, consisted of five A-list veterans of the Latin music scene in New York: trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, trombonist Ozzie Melendez, tight-locked Venezuelan percussion cousins Luisito Quintero and Roberto Quintero, and mighty pianist Osmany Paredes, who packs a lot of polyrhythmic muscle. They opened with the Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe’s chestnut “Kikiribú Mandinga,” which Bona sang in his native Bantu language of Duala. As the set progressed, he bantered between songs in French, wisecracked in English and even yodeled in the final number.

There was also another sensational Cuban keyboardist from New York on stage that night. Sporting a platinum Afro and two-toned goatee, Axel Tosca Laugart lit up an opening set by Haitian-American pop-jazz chanteuse and flutist Melanie Charles. Alongside the fine alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, bassist Calvin X Jones and drummer Gashford Guillaume, Charles poured out her soul in a splendidly passionate set, thanking the crowd in Creole and singing as if it were the most important night of her life.

—Ned Sublette


Richard Bona (Photo: Ned Sublette)

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