It is one of the few places on Earth where you can still attend concerts: the 15th edition of the international jazz festival of Port-au-Prince defies the coronavirus pandemic and brings happiness to renowned artists.
“It’s been three months since I played the piano”: these first words pronounced with a broad smile by Jacky Terrasson during the opening concert of the Papjazz last Saturday, reveal the singularity of the moment.
While across the world, many cultural events are canceled, the low prevalence of the Covid-19 epidemic in Haiti allows the country not to ban gatherings. And the musicians are in heaven.
“We were very happy to be back on stage to play and share,” says Jacky Terrasson the day after his first concert.
“It does us so good to communicate, to try to improvise on Harry Potter or Michael Jackson. There may be a little more risk taking than usual because we tell ourselves that we are lucky to be there so we give it our all, ”smiles the pianist born in Germany and living in New York.
“Not playing in public is killing us”
Used to traveling the world to play, the stars of the dozen countries on the PapJazz bill live badly this deprivation of contact with their fans.
“Not playing in public is killing us: we no longer exist”, testifies Etienne Mbappé.
While some were learning to bake bread, the bassist took advantage of confinement in Paris to set up a recording studio at his home but the performances he offered on the internet left him hungry.
“Even if technology allows us to do lives from our living room, nothing beats the real thing. It’s as if we were telling you that instead of eating, crunching your food, we were going to inject it into you: frankly, it’s not the same! ”, Assures the Cameroonian artist, the only bass player to play with gloves.
That the jam sessions that follow the concerts end in the early hours of the morning could not please the festival organizers more.
“Nothing so far has stopped the PapJazz”, delighted Milena Sandler, director of the Haiti Jazz foundation which organizes the festival.
“We really feel privileged to be able to receive musicians who have been stopped in their country for a year,” she underlines.
Until the last minute, the spread of the coronavirus epidemic around the world could have canceled everything.
A few hours before the opening of the festival, the Haitian Ministry of Health had among other things recommended a ban on large gatherings, an opinion that the government did not follow.
Reduction in the number of spectators, disinfection of microphones and instruments between each passage of the groups which follow one another on stage: “We are doing everything we can so that the festival is not a reason to catch the Covid”, assures Milena Sandler.
Kidnappings and political crisis
But for the public of Haitian festival-goers, more than the health crisis, it is above all the ambient insecurity that occupies their minds.
“We came to have fun because we needed that, faced with all the problems that there are, the kidnappings … It allows us to let off steam”, confesses Jacob who came to attend the opening of the PapJazz in the company of her young son in his Sunday best.
Since the fall, Haiti has seen an upsurge in kidnappings for ransom perpetrated by armed gangs. In addition, political tensions are growing and the opposition demands the departure of the president within two weeks.
“We are working hard at all levels, we are not going to put anyone at risk,” explains Milena Sandler.
Without overshadowing this difficult context, the guest musicians of the PapJazz do not shy away from their pleasure to exchange with their Haitian peers.
“I come from Africa, oral transmission is very important,” explains Etienne Mbappé to the thirty or so young musicians participating in a morning workshop.
“Don’t be discouraged, the world is tough. Today is a health crisis, tomorrow it will be something else, ”the 50-year-old motto.