Extract from the September / October 2021 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Marc Ribot
In 1965, Marc Ribot, then an 11-year-old aspiring rock musician, began taking classical guitar lessons from a close family friend, Frantz Casseus, who drew inspiration from the folk forms of his native Haiti. Although in his professional life Ribot continued to make quite dissimilar and beautifully off-center music, both alone and with a range of collaborators – Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, John Zorn, Marianne Faithful and McCoy Tyner, to name a few, he would take with him the formative concepts he gleaned from his time with Casseus. In order to preserve the legacy of his mentor, Ribot published in 1993 Marc Ribot plays works for solo guitar by Frantz Casseus. Long out of print, the album was reissued with bonus tracks recorded in 2020, in CD, digital and, for the first time, vinyl formats. Here Ribot breaks down one of Casseus’ masterpieces. –Adam perlmutter
“Dance of the Hounsies” was written by Frantz Casséus (1915-1993), a Haitian guitarist / composer widely recognized as the “father of the Haitian classical guitar”. Casseus began writing music in the 1940s and was among the first Haitian composers who, perhaps influenced by the black culture movement of poet / playwright Aimé Césaire’s Negritude, turned to rich traditions. Haitian folklore for inspiration.
In a 1989 interview with Ira Landgarten in Frets magazine, Casseus described his own artistic mission as follows: “I believe that it is the function of the artist to make articulate and with beauty the soul of the earth of his origin and also the world that he experiences. . . . As you may know, my work is seen as an expression of the Haitian spirit. Yet critics have said (and it was my hope) that it transcends regionalism and enters the realm of transnational art.
As the relatively protected son of an official, Casseus had to study in order to learn some Haitian folk traditions. After abandoning his law studies in Port-au-Prince to become a full-time guitarist, he made contact, as he confided to Landgarten, “with certain griots and people initiated into our culture. Thus reinforced, I overflowed the rhythms, forms, lyrics of my future compositions.
Casseus, who in 1946 emigrated to New York (where he met my aunt and uncle, Rhoda and Melvin Unger), was to maintain his commitment to creating unique Haitian classical guitar music throughout his life. In 1954, he recorded his magnum opus, the “Haitian Suite” in four parts, available on the Smithsonian Folkways recording. Haitian Dances, Haitian Suite and as a score in Frantz Casseus: works for guitar (Chanterelle / Schott), which I co-edited with the famous Italian classical guitarist Alberto Mesirca.
the Voodoo inspiration Behind ‘Dance of the Hounsies’
“Dance of the Hounsies” first appeared on Casseus’ recording in 1969 Haitian on the Afro-Carib label, and is also now available on Smithsonian Folkways. “Hounsies” refers to the ritual dance of local voodoo initiates, but it is unclear whether Casseus responded to a ceremony he witnessed firsthand on one of the many return trips to Haiti in the years. 1960, to a painting of Hounsie dancers by the great Haitian artist. Xavier Amiama, or both.
The score here is taken from guitar works. The ostinato of “Dance of the Hounsies” is a variation of the Congolese rhythm “kongo siye”, while the sometimes dense harmonies and the grouped voices refer to the composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and Maurice Ravel, as well as to the modal jazz of the 1960s.
Dance Ostinatos and rich tonal colors
Technically, “Dance of the Hounsies” is straightforward. Since its inspiration was the highly rhythmic drum used in local voodoo ceremonies, it is meant to be played over time, not performed romantically. In Frantz’s own interpretation, the quarter note is around 96 bpm.
In addition to Casseus’ exploration of Haitian rhythms, “Dance of the Hounsies” shows her awareness of the tonal colors inherent in the nylon string guitar, especially evident in chord voicings with unison notes, such as the doubled E on string 3, fret 9, and the first open string in measures 10-11.
The key to interpreting the piece is to play the ostinato – which is established in the first two bars and falls on the E note in various octaves throughout – with rhythmic precision and verve. Make sure you can play these rhythms convincingly before you dive into the song; you can also try learning the down-stem layer on its own before working on the rising-stem notes and then combining the two parts.
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It is also important to observe dynamic marks throughout, as well as crescendos and decrescendos, for a fully expressed performance. I admit that I have sometimes exaggerated the dynamics, in particular the strong at the bar 45 [appropriate for this dramatic moment, the only one making use of all six strings and encompassing the greatest range, from the low open E to the tenth-fret D on string 1. —Ed.].
Although trained in classical guitar composition and repertoire and technique, Frantz Casseus had to deal during his lifetime with the racism of a white American classical establishment that confused its referencing to folk sources with musical naivety, hence its initial association with the Folkways label. However, with more recent recordings by Alberto Mesirca (Haitian Suite: The Music of Frantz Casseus) and others, Casseus’ brilliant but long neglected work is beginning to find the transnational audience it deserves.
Marc Ribot is a New York-based guitarist, composer and recording artist. His literary beginnings, Unstring: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist, was published in 2021 by Akashic Books. marcribot.com