Haitian Choirs, a Project Called Slow Machete, and Why John Philip Sousa Wasn’t Entirely Correct

About a year before the earthquake that devastated Haiti, Joseph Shaffer went to the country to visit a friend who was living at an orphanage in Cap Haitïen. During that first trip, he fell in love with the music of Haiti. He started recording. “I took binaural mics down the next time I visited, and every time since for four years. The binaural mics, earbud mics, allow you to record unobtrusively and pick up nice field sounds for soundscapes.”

After four years, the Pittsburgh native had piles of half-takes and practice session recordings. “Most of the outtakes occurred when I asked them to perform again, but they wouldn’t convey the same emotional vibe as in the outtake. So you’d have a ‘moment’ in a song that was very powerful, emotionally evoking, and the song would cut short. During the re-take she’d be shy, or they’d start in a different key, or someone else would take that part. So you’re left with 10 seconds that are beautiful but too short to release as a choir song.”

He began mixing the recordings with accordions, downtempo beats, and rhythms. What started as a side project turned into something much more meaningful. He went to Costa Rica and Uruguay in 2011 to tie everything together, and the result is the project that he calls Slow Machete. The name comes from the pitched down machete samples used to build percussion. After the song is complete, Shaffer adds some of his own voice in. “I always write and sing parts last. I try to write as long of a song as possible then cut that back to one or two verses that have the most potency—sometimes one or two sentences if possible.”

It’s not traditional Haitian music, but the singers don’t seem to mind. “Some songs they really enjoy and get very excited to hear their voices mixed with the rhythms,” Shaffer explains, “but if I pitch their voices up or down too much they make the funniest faces.”

When you listen to Slow Machete, you hear a sound that is clearly manipulated and removed from the context that gives it powerful layers of meaning, but there’s still a rawness about it that cuts through the extra layers and production effects. “It’s interesting to me what causes it to sound ‘pure.’ Most of it is the reflections of the culture, how musically advanced it is with its harmonies, timing and demand for fantastic memories, how direct the people are, how money isn’t corrupting their intention. There’s a joy and sorrow in these songs of praise that form a beautiful combination. And it sounds pure because the sound is raw and sometimes flawed. There is an article I read a long time ago that I took to heart on this topic. Its called ‘The Record Effect’ by Alex Ross. In it he talks about how we’ve polished our recordings so much that it loses the emotion that made it great. I think what makes Haitian choir music ‘pure’ is the rawness, the mistakes, the sounds, the cars, the laughing, all of it. Slow Machete tries to capture all of that in the same way.”

After hearing Joseph Shaffer’s story, I read that article he mentioned—”The Record Effect.” Like Shaffer, I will take this article to heart. It pointed out an obvious, important, but sometimes unspoken observation of how recorded music and the industry built around it had devastatingly affected the music itself. The sound of music has, as the article notes, been changed. But in light of Shaffer’s story, the most interesting thing in this article is the first sentence: “Ninety-nine years ago, John Philip Sousa predicted that recordings would lead to the demise of music.”

“Demise” is a strong word, but Sousa had a point. The recording process has killed “folk” music as it was once known. In the strictest terms, the word folk was used to describe music that was passed down through generations orally. In modern times, the word folk has come to mean something different to most music fans. There was a deeply rooted tradition in folk music—the very thing that defined it—that has been distorted, if not lost completely. But is this really a bad thing?

By taking music out of its original setting—its time and place of creation—we are changing it. But we are certainly not killing it. If anything, we’re keeping it alive in a way that was never before possible, a way that allows a guy New York City to hear the recorded voices of Haitian choirs over the production of a man in Pittsburgh. Certainly this does not replace the experience of going to Haiti and hearing a choir sing into the Carribean air, but it also doesn’t make the music of Slow Machete any less beautiful.

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During his time in Haiti, Joseph made friends with locals, many of whom were farmers. Proceeds from any sales of Slow Machete music will go directly to support agricultural and educational programs in Cap Hatïen. 

To support, buy Slow Machete’s music at Boomkat, Bandcamp, or iTunes.

  • Jetsfoo21

    A very thoughtful article.
    Keep up the good work P&P.