A New Season of Jazz Roots and the Art of Selling Jazz in Miami

Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval performing on a Tribute to Tito Puente, part of a recent Jazz Roots series at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami. Photo courtesy Daniel Azoulay ©

A few years ago, discussing the beginnings of Jazz Roots, the jazz concert series at the Adrienne Arsht Center, in Miami,  the late musician, producer, record label owner and entrepreneur Larry Rosen, a co-founder of the event, estimated that the opening season had “about 650 subscriptions — of which about 200 were from our neighbors in Fisher Island. And in most cases, it was not because they were great jazz fans. They just thought ‘These are our neighbors and we want to support them.’ That’s why they did it.”  It was a modest beginning, especially for such a large hall, but Rosen was neither surprised nor intimidated.
He had moved to South Florida from New York in 2000 and in that conversation he shrugged as he noted how “anyone who’s in the jazz business knew that Miami was not a jazz market. […] I certainly knew what to expect. But you don’t really understand Miami unless you live here.”
Jazz remains a hard sell in South Florida. And yet, since its launching in 2008, Jazz Roots has not only found its audience but become one of the mainstays of Miami’s cultural landscape.

Jazz Roots opens its season on Friday with British Invasion – Latin Style, featuring singer and songwriter José Feliciano, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, pianist and arranger Shelly Berg, saxophonist Tim Ries, singers Lucy Woodward, Kate Reid, and Fantine and the University of Miami’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.
The series continues with concerts by Mavis Staples and Charlie Musselwhite; pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro- Latin Jazz Orchestra; singer Kurt Elling; pianist, arranger, and composer Dave Grusin (who co-founded with Rosen the all-digital GRP record label), and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

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Dancing with the Spirits

Lunise and Richard Morse (far left) leading RAM at the North Beach Bandshell, Miami Beach Saturday. Photo credit © Luis Olazábal, courtesy The Rhythm Foundation

It’s hard to tell what the spirits are doing any given night, but it´s a good bet that a few of them were dancing with RAM at the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach, Saturday. As earthly pleasures go, this would’ve been one hard to pass up.
Led by singer and dancer Lunise Morse and founder, singer, and emcee Richard Morse, the 11-piece Haitian roots music band RAM offered an intense and joyful performance that had the mostly Haitian expat audience up, dancing and singing all evening.

Founded in 1990 by Morse, RAM once blended elements of rock and funk with Haitian traditional and Vodou ritual music and instruments and became a leading band of the mizik rasin (roots music) movement. That was then. Over time, the group has de-emphasized the rock elements in favor of Haitian musical tradition. (Guitarist William Morse, Lunise and Richard’s son, teased a few heavy rock riffs, but never longer than a few bars) In fact, Saturday, the rich, deep-rooted Africanness of the music offered moments that hinted at modern African styles as disparate as Congolese soukous or Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. Also, a vocal ensemble piece suggested, at least to a non-Haitian listener, a sort of proto-gospel song.

Anchored by a battery of three single-head, conga-like drums and a standard rock drum kit, electric bass and guitar; and featuring three backing vocalists who also played light percussion, a scrapper, and, occasionally, the vaksen, the conical metal horns of the rara carnival tradition, RAM was, basically, a drums and vocals ensemble.
Most of the pieces were in triple meter, and RAM’s drummers — a phenomenal engine room that worked with relentless intensity, exact but swinging — gave the music a muscular, textured forward drive. Meanwhile, lead singer Lunise danced and set up call-and-responses with the backing choir while seemingly floating over the music.

The show was sung and conducted in Kreyol, but the power and beauty of the music needed no translation.


Richard Morse, RAM and the Power of Haitian Roots Music

Lunise and Richard Morse performing with RAM. Photo credit Nadia Todres courtesy The Rhythm Foundation

By Fernando González

More often than not, pop music in the Western world is just another product vying for attention and shelf space. It might come in different models and packaging — snarky alt-rock; bluntly sexual reggaeton; street-tough rap — but it’s rarely more subversive than a soap commercial.
But in developing countries struggling with poverty, corruption, and failing institutions, pop music is not only entertainment but also often serves as a vehicle for protest and a tool for change.

In Haiti in the 1990s, the mizik rasin (roots music) movement, blending folk and religious traditions with elements of rock and funk, emerged as a powerful expression of  popular resistance. The lyrics of the songs, often using oblique references and parables, a common device in the Vodou tradition, became a popular shorthand to comment, protest, and organize. Dictators banned some of these songs — and made them even more relevant. But that was only part of the story. The very esthetics of rasin, built on rhythms of Vodou rites or utilizing the vaksen, the metal horns of the rara carnival tradition, were a statement about the richness and value of Haitian popular culture.

The 13-piece strong RAM, one of the essential groups of the rasin movement, performs at the North Beach Bandshell, in Miami Beach, Saturday at 8 p.m. presented by Rhythm Foundation. The concert stands as a Fete Gede (or guede), known as the Festival of the Ancestors is the Vodou equivalent of Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and Halloween, all in one.

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