THUMP's Haitian Dance Music Glossary

A brief overview of sounds and styles mentioned in our documentary, 'Sounds of Solidarity.'

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May 9 2014, 7:40pm

Most of us outside of Haiti don't typically think of it as a hub for dance music, let alone a growing EDM scene. In Sounds of Solidarity, THUMP travels to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince to learn more about how a homegrown EDM movement is flourishing out of the country's long and storied history of music, dance, and all-night parties.

Only four years after the catostrophic earthquake that killed 200,000 Haitians and left another 2.3 million without a home, we witness a country that is still very much in recovery—and for many, music provides a momentary escape from the trials of everyday life. Over the course of 20 minutes, we get a crash course in the wildly complex history of Haitian music, leading up to rise of the country's many shades of contemporary dance music.

To make everything a bit easier, we thought we'd break down a few of the key musical terms mentioned in the film—so you can speak like a real PaP dancefloor master. Get learned:

Compas, or compas-direct in French, is a modern, slowed-down form of the Haitian traditional style méringue, which fuses Afro-diasporic rhythms and European ballroom dance styles from the early colonial period. Popularized by Haitian saxophonist Nemours Jean Baptiste in the 1950s, compas is constantly changing and incorporating new influences, though the persistent, straight-ahead drum arrangements make it easy for everyone to dance to. It's often compared to zouk music from Guadalupe and Martinique.

Raboday is "very fast-paced, like sped-up dancehall—a very provocative style of music," says Gilles Malval, a Haitian DJ and promoter. Rhythmically it's similar to soca music, a fast-paced carnival style from Trinidad & Tobago, as well as other West Indian islands. It's electronically arranged and popular with the young folks in Haiti.

Rara is festival music! At the center of a rara ensemble is a set of bamboo or metal trumpets called vaksen, accompanied by various drums, percussion, and homemade instruments made from recycled items like coffee cans. You're most likely to hear rara in Easter-related street parades, though it's closely connected with voodoo as well, with a history that goes back to the country's earliest colonial periods. Arcade Fire said they were influenced by rara in the making of their 2013 album Reflektor.

Rasin is voodoo heavy metal. "Racine" means roots in French, and the genre is named as such because it's reaches back to the tradition of vodou ceremonies and folklore. It incorporates indigenous instruments like rara horns and petwo drums into modern hard rock. Developed in the late 80s, its lyrical themes incorporate political critique and social commentary alongside the themes of traditional vodou music.