In Haiti, music is in the air as pre-Carnival celebrations, jazz fest start the party

Carnival may be more than a month away, but that's not stopping Haitians from launching the party early.

A week after marking the fourth anniversary of Haiti's tragic Jan.12, 2010, earthquake during which their singer-turned-president urged them to celebrate life, Haitians kicked off pre-carnival celebrations Sunday.

Jumping and dancing into the streets, they transformed a downtown public square that once housed tens of thousands of quake victims under tents, into a musical stage.

Oversized floats, DJs and enthusiastic Rara bands took over the Champ de Mars in front of the razed presidential palace as part of the weekly carnival warm-ups that will take place between now and carnival weekend, March 2-4, in the city of Gonaives.

Like in the last two years, Haiti's official carnival celebration will rotate this year outside of the capital.

Carnival drums, however, were not the only rhythms playing Sunday in this quake-recovering capital. Uptown in Petionville, hundreds of jazz fanatics enjoyed the second day of the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival in the capital featuring Daniel Schenker Quartet of Switzerland, guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke from Benin and Haiti's Réginald Policard.

The musicians performed at the NH El Rancho hotel, one of several newly rebuilt and opened post-quake hotels in Haiti.

"In North America, there is just very sad press about Haiti, about poverty and despair, but no one is touching on the spirit of the people," Canadian jazz artist Julie Michels said at a Sunday brunch hosted by Canada's Embassy to welcome the jazz festival.

"There's this wonderful combo of grace and strength of character that is just profound, and that's pretty humbling. What's going on here is amazing," she said.

Michels' performance at the festival was sponsored by Canada, one of 13 countries participating this year. Each of the countries bring in bands that not only perform over the course of the week-long festival, but also hold workshops for Haitian musicians.

The festival, which ends Saturday, got into full swing over the weekend with three different interpretations of jazz that each moved the audience inside a former sugar cane field turned concert venue. Michels and saxophonist Don Braden shared the stage with U.S.-based Haitian-American jazz artists Willerm Delisfort and Franco-Cameroonian singer-songwriter Sandra Nkaké.

A cross between singer Grace Jones, Lori Andrews and Annie Lennox, the bi-cultural Nkaké had Haitian audiences on their feet with an eclectic, high energy performance that sometimes seem more rock than jazz. Before taking the stage, she said her hope was for the audience "to feel a new encounter."

"When I get on stage, I feel like I'm naked in water," said Nkaké, who enjoyed several encores during the evening before jumping into the audience.

While she sang in English, Nkaké spoke to the audience in French, touching on the roots of her music, which speak to people's struggles and draw on "everyday life."

Asked if her time in Haiti offered any inspirational material for a future album, she said, only time will tell.

"People are nice and simple and I love it," she said. "There are no barriers."

Read more Haiti stories from the Miami Herald

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