Art is life in Haiti, but music is its soul. As with Haiti’s culinary traditions, the music here bears influences from a kaleidoscope of foreign cultures; some brought to Haiti by immigrants, others picked up by Haitian laborers while working seasonal jobs overseas. It is those migrant workers who we have to thank for twoubadou.
Just as the name suggests, Haitian twoubadou echoes the centuries-old medieval musical stylings of European troubadours. In Haiti as in ancient Europe, the twoubadou is equal parts poet, singer, composer, and musician; entertaining the masses with suggestive, often humorous songs of love, lust, and the trials of life.
Twoubadou traces its origins to the early 1900s, when seasonal migrant laborers working the cane fields in Cuba came to know and love Cuban guajiro music. The Cuban sound was soon melded with Haitian méringue and twoubadou was born.
Every time I’ve seen a twoubadou band playing anywhere in Haiti, be it along the Champs de Mars at Carnival time or in the lobby of the tony Marriott Port-au-Prince, the set up is the same: acoustic guitars, a pair of maracas, percussion, cowbell, a scraper, a drum – nothing so cumbersome that it couldn’t make the journey to and from the cane fields in Cuba.
The sound is distinctly Haitian, though its Cuban roots shine through as well, with lyrics sometimes shifting from Spanish to French to Kreyol and back again.
As legendary as twoubadou is in Haiti, it’s not much known outside of the country. Like other forms of Caribbean folk music – mento in Jamaica, quelbe in the Virgin Islands – twoubadou doesn’t top the charts as it once did. I’ve heard it plenty at folkloric shows and special performances at notable restaurants, attractions, and hotels in and around Port-au-Prince, but hardly ever on the radio in Haiti or anywhere else.
This, to me, is too bad as twoubadou represents so much of what’s great about Haiti as an incubator for the arts, always bringing disparate cultures together to form wonderful new and uniquely West Indian expressions.
Twoubadou is beautiful. Twoubadou is joy. Twoubadou is Haiti as most who have never been here have ever heard it before, providing yet another good reason to get back here soon.