Kreol Magazine goes behind the scenes to find out how from relatively modest beginnings, a combination of drive, ambition, and booking the right acts has helped to bring more and more jazz fans flocking to Haiti’s shores.

This year’s Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince marked the 10th anniversary of an event that has grown year on year over the past decade to become one of the biggest of its kind in the Caribbean. Not only does the annual festival draw in celebrated artists and jazz fans fr om all over the world, it is helping to reaffirm all that is worth celebrating about this beautiful island as it emerges from an often troubled and tragic history. Kreol was hugely impressed by the running of the 2016 event, so its Editor went backstage to get the lowdown about the festival and what the future holds, from general manager, Milena Sandler.

Milena was asked, “How the event had gone from humble beginnings to become the international success story it is today – and what prompted the idea for a jazz festival in Haiti in the first place anyway?”

One of the main driving forces behind the festival was – and still is – Joël Widmaier, who is President of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, the body that stages the event every year.

“Joel was instrumental in getting the event off the ground (in 2007) and the original idea was to have a musical event that would have universal appeal, such as a jazz festival, and to be able to draw in people from all over the place.”

Partnerships were formed with a number of embassies to strengthen or, in most cases, initiate cultural connections to help get the artists to come to Haiti. “We also wanted to attract local people to the concerts, many for the first time, because in the past jazz music was something that only the elite were exposed to,” says Milena.

de Port-au-Prince

Festival Organisers, Joël Widmaier (left), President of The Haiti Jazz Foundation and Milena Sandler (centre), General Manager of The Haiti Jazz Foundation during the press conference

More performers than ever before

In the early years, the number of performers was around half what it is now. Performances back then numbered three to four a day compared to the eight or more at this year’s event, adding up to more than 30 concerts spread over the eight days of the festival. Attendances at the concerts have also steadily increased since the early days as news has spread beyond the balmy shores of Port-au-Prince. This year’s event, for instance, featured well known international jazz musicians such as Canadian Oliver Jones, Thomas Siffling from Germany, local group the Haitian All Jazz Stars, and a host of other big names.

Thanks to partnerships with a number of embassies, artists and visitors come from the USA, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, France, and Germany. Not only do the embassies help to fund the artists, they also provide the Foundation with grants to keep them going during the rest of the year. As Milena explained that the planning and organisation of the event starts as soon as the last act of the festival leaves the stage in January and consumes the next eight to 10 months.

“The grants help us to work in advance of the next festival and also supports the various workshops during the festival itself,” noted Milena.

Above: Jael Auguste (right), classically trained double-bass player

Jael Auguste (right), classically trained double-bass player

A magnet for tourists

The original idea to put on an event that had popular appeal has also grown over the years and is very much seen as a tool to attract not only jazz fans to the island, but tourism in general.

“There are a lot of jazz festivals in the Caribbean, so we wanted to broaden our appeal by creating more of a music festival, and make it one of the biggest in the region that will bring more visitors to Haiti,” elucidated Milena.

Despite being held at the same time as a Presidential run-off vote in Haiti, the 2016 festival was another resounding success and another opportunity to promote the island to international visitors. The festival is now a firm fixture on the global music scene, and one that is covered across a range of media platforms. To maintain this position, and to continue to grow, it’s important to continue to attract recognized musicians.

“We know fans and tourists look for names that ring a bell, so we do have to invest a lot of our budget in getting headliners to come, which can be very expensive,” observes Milena.

Given the potential f or marketing the island as a destination, Kreol wanted to know what level of support the Foundation received from the state.

“We get a grant of $20,000 from the Ministry of Tourism, which is welcome of course but it’s not a lot when you compare it to out overall budget of around $200,000,” reveals Milena.

Milena also dispelled the assumption that a lot of volunteers were involved in the running of the festival but in fact, apart from two volunteers, the backstage workers, technical support, and other staff are all contracted and paid for. In that sense, the festival is a mini industry all of its own and provides job opportunities f or a range of local skills. In terms of the bigger picture, had the Foundation tried to put a figure on the benefits the festival has brought to the country?

Milena discloses, “We did a small study this year, admittedly not very scientific, but we looked at the number of hotel rooms that were let, how busy restaurants were; we also saw that companies were offering holiday packages to Haiti that included the jazz festival so although we can say that all these areas benefit from the event, we believe there is still huge potential.”

Chano Dominguez

Chano Dominguez, Spanish Latin jazz, post bop and flamenco pianist

Potential for growth

Milena was asked how this potential could be realized, and what the plans were going forward. She summarised, “Our plan is to train more people like us so that we can grow the event, but also because we need more local people to put on their own festivals and events. We want to make this the best jazz festival in the Caribbean, and if other local individuals or groups can get involved or develop their own events, the whole country will benefit.”

And what about a message for anyone out there who hasn’t considered coming to Haiti? “Come and visit. Haiti is a wonderful country and there is more than just the jazz to discover”, answers Milena, excitedly.

There are also opportunities for investors or entrepreneurs to get involved in expanding the festival, with spin-offs for the wider economy, Milena believes. She elaborates, “We can show investors how the event generates money and is also a developmental tool. We provide training in technical areas, sound and lighting, and other related skills, which means people can use these skills to work elsewhere.”

Finally, Kreol Editor asked Milena that if she could have three wishes for the festival, what these would be. After giving it some thought, she replied: “First, I’d wish for stability in the country; secondly, we have a vision for the future and I’d wish for all our partners to share the same long-term vision, and thirdly, I’d wish for us to continue to provide a line up of great music for all the fans, wherever they come from.”

Of course, no one can say with certainty what the future holds, but one thing Kreol is certain of is that the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince is in good hands and that the event is likely to go on enticing jazz lovers to these sun-kissed shores for a long time to come!