By Isis Briones, November 20, 2017, for Forbes
Haiti might be off the beaten path, but it’s home to one of the most unique music festival experiences around. Into its 12th edition, the annual Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival, also known as PapJazz, is back and better than ever this January 2018.
The event is opening the world to seeing the country’s special culture and the genre of jazz music in a new light. From after hours jam sessions at some of the best local restaurants in the capital city to hit Haitian-born DJ, Michael Brun, dropping a dance influenced set, expect an unexpected combination of sounds to come together. Instead of planning for your usual festivals, dare to go somewhere different. To get a deeper understanding of what attendees can look forward to, I spoke with the foundation’s manager, Milena Sandler, who made it clear why this is a can’t miss adventure.
Isis Briones: What was the inspiration behind the PapJazz?
Milena Sandler: “It came naturally to musician and President of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, Joel Widmaier. From a jazz background through his dad, the late Herby Widmaeier — who has been a promoter of jazz in Haiti through his radio shows — he wanted to do something that would honor the legendary genre in his country. Joel has also taken part in many festivals around the world and knew what it took to put one together on an international level.”
IB: It’s remarkable that the festival also includes a mentorship program for native artists. Can you elaborate on its mission and how it came about?
MS: “Since the first edition back in 2007, artists have always been asked to offer workshops geared towards aspiring, young musicians — free of charge. There is no jazz education and very few music schools in Haiti, so this is an opportunity for them to learn from professionals from all over the world.
Today we can pride ourselves in having participated in the creation of new generation jazz musicians. Moreover, we recently started a school program, where we will give free jazz, harmony, composition, and music appreciation classes. We also plan to obtain grants that will improve the students’ equipment and provide seminars for them”
IB: EDM was also incorporated in the lineup through Michael Brun and given the influence dance music has on the festival scene, do you foresee the different genres blending on a larger scale?
MS: “Our challenge and objective since the start has been to attract a larger crowd to this jazz festival, including a public not familiar with it. Plus, the Haitian music is very diverse and the inclusion of all kinds of music is what’s made us successful.
However, we still plan to focus the majority of the lineup on jazz musicians and at the end of the day, Michael is a great illustration of this. We didn’t pick just any DJ, Michael includes his Haitian jazz roots into his sound. He will be closing out the festival this year showcasing the perfect example of diversity.”
IB: Beyond revolutionizing people’s perspective on jazz, what are some stereotypical misconceptions about Haiti that you feel the festival is helping change?
MS: “The first thing that comes to mind is that in Haiti great things can happen. We offer events that meets international standards in terms of organization logistics, sound quality, comfort, and of course, security. Yes, there’s a lot of poverty, but at the same time, the Haitian people have a real ‘Joie de Vivre’ that you can feel through their smiles and faith for a better tomorrow. Attending PapJazz does something to you, anyone who goes come back with a new outlook on Haiti and a better understanding of what the country could become.
IB: 12 years is also a long time to be hosting a worldwide event, what would you say about this year makes things even better than the last? Can you point out some highlights festival goers shouldn’t miss?
MS: “We strive to bring better lineups each year, which is no easy task. Jazz musician fees can be quite expensive and it’s important to remember that the festival is a nonprofit with most shows being free. Luckily, this year, we are proud to include two Grammy Award winners and thanks to the participation of foreign embassies, we were able to have artists from 12 countries.
In this edition, we also made a commitment to make the event a tourist destination, in which we created various packages that allow for the possibility to explore the country, the kindness of its people, its rich culture, and beautiful beaches on a higher level. We know it will be an unforgettable experience.”