In 1965, Marc Ribot, then an 11-year-old aspiring rock musician, started taking classical guitar lessons from a close family friend, Frantz Casseus, who took inspiration from the folk forms of his native Haiti. Though in his professional life Ribot would go on to make quite dissimilar and beautifully off-center music, both on his own 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 carry with him the formative concepts he gleaned from his time with Casseus. To preserve his mentor’s legacy, in 1993 Ribot released Marc Ribot Plays Solo Guitar Works of Frantz Casseus. Long out of print, the album has been 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 Casseus (1915–1993), a Haitian guitarist/composer widely acknowledged as the “father of Haitian classical guitar.” Casseus began writing music in the 1940s, and was among the first Haitian composers who, perhaps influenced by the Negritude Black culture movement of poet/playwright Aimé Césaire, turned to the rich folk traditions of Haiti for inspiration.
In a 1989 interview with Ira Landgarten in Frets magazine, Casseus described his own artistic mission as follows: “I believe it is the artist’s function to render articulately and with beauty the soul of the land of his origin and also the world that he experiences. . . . As you may know, my work is considered an expression of the Haitian spirit. Yet, critics have stated (and this has been my hope) that it transcends regionalism and enters the realm of transnational art.”
As the relatively protected son of a civil servant, Casseus had to study in order to learn certain Haitian folk traditions. After dropping out of law school in Port-au-Prince to become a full-time guitarist, he made contact, as he told Landgarten, “with certain griots and people initiated in our culture. Thus strengthened, I overflowed with rhythms, forms, lyrics of my future compositions.”
Casseus, who in 1946 emigrated to New York City (where he met my aunt and uncle, Rhoda and Melvin Unger), was to maintain his commitment to the creation of uniquely Haitian classical guitar music throughout his life. In 1954, he recorded his magnum opus, the four-part “Haitian Suite,” available on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Haitian Dances, Haitian Suite and in score form in Frantz Casseus: Guitar Works (Chanterelle/Schott), which I coedited with the celebrated Italian classical guitarist Alberto Mesirca.
The Vodou Inspiration Behind ‘Dance of the Hounsies’
“Dance of the Hounsies” first appeared on Casseus’ 1969 recording Haitiana on the Afro-Carib label, and is also now available on Smithsonian Folkways. “Hounsies” refers to the ritual dance of local Vodou initiates, but it’s uncertain whether Casseus was responding to a ceremony he witnessed directly while on one of several return trips to Haiti in the 1960s, to a painting of Hounsie dancers by the great Haitian artist Xavier Amiama, or both.
The score here is excerpted from Guitar Works. The ostinato in “Dance of the Hounsies” is a variation of the Congolese-derived “kongo siye” rhythm, while the piece’s sometimes dense harmonies and cluster voicings reference composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and Maurice Ravel, as well as 1960s modal jazz.
Dance-like Ostinatos and Rich Tonal Colors
Technically, “Dance of the Hounsies” is straightforward. Given that its inspiration was the highly rhythmic drumming used in local Vodou ceremonies, it is meant to be played in time, not romantically interpreted. In Frantz’s own rendition, the quarter note is about 96 bpm.
In addition to Casseus’ exploration of Haitian rhythms, “Dance of the Hounsies” shows his awareness of the tonal colors inherent in the nylon-string guitar, especially evident in the chord voicings with unison notes, like the E doubled on string 3, fret 9, and the open first string in bars 10–11.
Key to performing the piece is playing the ostinato—which is established in the first two bars and falls on the note E in various octaves throughout—with rhythmic precision and verve. Make sure that you can convincingly play these rhythms before delving into the piece; you might also try learning the down-stemmed layer on its own before working through the up-stemmed notes, and then combining both parts.
It’s also important to observe the dynamic markings throughout, and the crescendos and decrescendos, for a fully expressed performance. I will confess to sometimes exaggerating the dynamics, particularly the forte at 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 composition and classical guitar repertoire and technique, Frantz Casseus had to contend during his lifetime with the racism of a white American classical establishment which mistook his referencing of folk sources for musical naivete—hence his 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.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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