By Roy Kasten
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For two decades, the music of Boukman Eksperyans has been a cultural hallmark of the island nation of Haiti a compliment that, given the country's reputation for poverty, political unrest and poor health conditions, might sound more like a slight, though that's certainly unintended.
The band, which features multiple vocalists, percussionists and dancers, emerged in the '80s and was immediately regarded as a challenge to the established order in the country not only musically but politically. Their name, after all, is taken from Boukman, a slave who led the country's 1804 independence uprising, which in turn led to the establishment of the world's first black republic. The Haitian government regards the band with suspicion and has banned their music.
Speaking of which, the group's sound is no less bold an aggressive and celebratory mix of voodoo rhythms, jazz and Zairean soukous which is to say that songs like "Mesaj a Ginen," "Baron" and "Mariaj a Zaka" (the band sings in a Creole tongue that has also sometimes been forbidden in Haiti) carry a massive groove that commands immediate action on the dance floor.
For their most recent album, Live at Red Rocks (Tuff Gong), the group encountered a problem nearly as vexing as the visa difficulties that scotch so many American tours by bands from the Caribbean someone stole all of their drums. Instead of calling the police, the group prayed, and another act loaned them substitute instruments. The result was a performance of unusual passion that was captured on tape and comes through perfectly on the CD.
Don't worry about catching the lyrics when the group performs on Friday night at Club Viva. Unless you're wearing those little headphones they hand out at the United Nations, you won't. Experience the music, though, and you can't miss the message, which, at its most basic, is this: Move!