To prepare for his ambitious new musical project, Tradisyon, the uniquely talented Haitian-Canadian songwriter, guitarist and producer Wesli (Wesley Louissaint) had to return to his roots. He embarked on a multi-year musical pilgrimage to explore often hidden facets of Haitian traditions. Wesli traveled across his homeland, visiting lakous, gathering places and community groups for practitioners of Haiti’s voodoo religion, to learn songs in African languages brought to Haiti hundreds of years ago. He honed his skills at a wide range of local musical instruments, from powerful interlocking rara horns to intricate drums in all shapes and sizes, not to mention folk instruments such as the Haitian banjo. And he reconnected with the profound spirituality and rich life philosophy of Afro-Haitian beliefs, which represent the inspiration and motivation, indeed the very soul, of Haitian culture.
The result of this ambitious research is Tradisyon, the sixth album of Wesli’s celebrated career, and the first of a two-part set that retells the story of Haiti’s past and imagines its future. The encyclopedic first album features 19 songs, original compositions and treasures from the expansive Haitian music repertoire. By drawing on these traditions, Africa inevitably emerges — through the rara, petro, nago, congo and yanvalou rhythms, and the lyrics sung both in Creole and the African languages of Yoruba, Ewe and Fon. They are all accompanied by local instruments such as the bamboo, the kata, the segon, the boula, the manman and the banjo, an originally African instrument that had been adopted by European colonizers.
Of Haitian origin and Montreal adoption––but above all a citizen of the world––Wesli is one of those rare artists capable of exploring different sounds while keeping his identity and his roots firmly anchored in his traditions. Ever since the release of his first album Kouraj in 2009, Wesli’s creativity has been unstoppable, leading to the acclaimed album Liberté dans le noir in 2011, the star-studded ImmiGrand and the more traditional Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle in 2015 and an expanded version of ImmiGrand in 2017. Only a year later, the prolific artist released Rapadou Kréyol, an exploration of African rhythms and instruments Wesli believes Haitian musical culture has neglected as it is increasingly drawn towards the commercial music encouraged by globalization. In 2019, the astonishing album was awarded the prestigious JUNO award for World Music Album of the Year. For Wesli, winning the JUNO award proved to him that the musical and cultural value he brings to the world had been accepted and welcomed, a message he hopes other young Haitian musicians will see as a sign that they too can inspire change with their craft.
The Tradisyon project, named after the Haitian and African diasporic traditions it honors, is a continuation and deepening of the goals of Rapadou Kreyôl. This previous album “was something that I wanted to do for the Creole culture” Wesli explains, “but I did so much research into the culture, I felt like one album wasn’t enough.” After years spent visiting various Haitian villages, learning lyrics in new languages, and recording the album’s percussion tracks in Haiti to capture a truly authentic, island sound, Wesli returned to Montreal to finish putting the epic albums together. When asked about the immense scope of the project, Wesli reflects, “I wanted to write a story, but a story that I didn’t create, because the story has been there for hundreds of years. I’m talking about the traditions, the core elements of a great culture: the Haitian culture.” In Tradisyon and the upcoming Tradisyon, Vol. 2, Wesli accomplishes the incredible feat of weaving this magical musical story through complex and ambitious arrangements.
Wesli has himself been a character in the epic story of Haitian culture. Born in 1980 to a poor family of seven children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wesli built his first guitar at the age of eight by stringing an old oil can with nylon fishing line. His musical adventure began at a young age when he sang alongside his mother in the gospel choir of the local church. His father, Henri Louissaint, was a well-known banjo and percussion player of twoubadou, a popular Haitian folk music style. Inspired by his parents, Wesli began playing the guitar as his primary instrument along with banjo and a wide range of traditional percussion. Growing up in a poor household, Wesli was often told that he had to be seven times better than anyone else to make it out of poverty. After experiencing the joyful, passionate music played around him as a child, both by his parents and his broader community, he dreamed of becoming a professional musician. He likes to say, “music chose me to share its spirit.”
His own spirit was challenged at a young age, when his family fled to a Cuban refugee camp during the violence that erupted after the 1991 Haitian coup d’état. Just 11 years old at the time, this difficult experience taught him “resilience, reconciliation and forgiveness” in the face of conflict. “No matter what,” Wesli says, “you can rebuild yourself and give yourself a positive direction, and make yourself into a new person that is useful to the society that you are living in.” This desire to serve his society has driven Wesli throughout his life, encouraging him to create change and bring Haitian culture to new audiences through the power of his music.
At the age of 21, the musical prodigy won a scholarship contest sponsored by the Canadian government which allowed him to study arrangement and percussion in Montreal. Since then, Wesli has made Montreal his home, a process of integrating his home culture with an unfamiliar world which he describes as difficult but transformational: “I always like to say that I have two hearts. I have one heart in Haiti and I have one in heart Montreal, and that makes me who I am now.”
Wesli put both of his hearts into the making of Tradisyon. The album starts with the thrilling call of the koné, a metal trumpet used in carnival parades. The opening song “Peyizan Yo” is a rallying cry for the farmers of Haiti who form the core of the island’s economy. Inspired by arrangements of voodoo music from the 1990s, the song asks people not to steal land from the farmers, who provide the nation with its sustenance.
That is followed by “Fè Yo Wè Kongo Banda,” a traditional song used in the beginning of Lakou Congo ceremonies to call the spirits to gather. Sung by a Samba, preachers of the Afro-Haitian cultural tradition, the song often begins a Capella before the entire community lifts their voices and pounds their drums in celebration.
A number of the songs on Tradisyon pay tribute to legends of Haiti’s musical past. “Samba” is an homage to Azor Rasin Mapou, one of the most influential artists in voodoo culture, while the rara composition “Wawa sé rèl O” celebrates the efforts of roots musician Wawa Rasin Kanga to pull the shroud of secrecy from Afro-Haitian traditions. “Konté M Rakonté M” sings the praises of Éric Charles, one of the founders of the band Haiti Twoubadou, which in the 1990s revived the twoudabou folk music style.
Tradisyon features a number of banjo-led twoubadou tracks, notably “Kay Koulé Trouba” in which Wesli describes a leaking house––a metaphor for his interpretation of the fragile condition of Haiti’s cultural values in the present day. “Makonay” is a call for unity, singing of the circle created by the coming together of people from all the provinces of Haiti who each bring their own values to create a diverse, unified culture. “Trouba Ewa” aims to elevate the twoubadou musical style by bringing together a modern lover’s story with the traditional sounds of Haitian folk music, creating a unique, captivating arrangement dedicated to present-day Haiti.
The upbeat reggae-influenced song “Le Soleil Descend” was the first single of the album and its colorful video launched the Tradisyon project in June 2021. Featuring Quebec singer-songwriter Paul Cargnello. the two artists sing about uniting under the sun. As Wesli says, “The sun breaks down all cultural, social and political borders and barriers. Under this sun we are all one people because it is this same light that inspires us and illuminates our paths.”
Congolese drummer Kizaba joins Wesli in “Peze Café”, which blends the igbo rhythm with the classic folk song about a child sent to buy coffee for his family before being wrongfully arrested on his way home. Sung in Haiti during the dictatorship of François Duvalier to protest military brutality, this age-old song and the parable it tells gathers new meaning and power each time it is performed. In Wesli’s rendition, his striking vocals take center stage, backed by his stripped-down guitar accompaniment and Kizaba’s expert cajón playing.
Overflowing with these and other highlights, Tradisyon honors and reveals Haiti’s rich musical history. The upcoming follow up, Tradisyon, Pt. 2, explores the new directions for the island’s music, blending traditional genres with electronic music, Afrobeat, soul, funk, hip-hop and more to create a rich, festive and uniquely engaging sound. Always thinking about the future and the legacy he leaves, Wesli’s aim with Tradisyon Pt. 2 is to give young Haitian musicians a “formula to merge ancient and new sounds. We are coming from somewhere, now we are somewhere else. You have to know where you’re from to know where you’re going. Tradisyon is where we’re coming from, and Tradisyon, Pt. 2 is where we’re going.”