Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drummer Obed Calvaire taps Sullivan Fortner, Godwin Louis and top Haitian musicians to delve into fascinating personal and cultural history

150 Million Gold Francs is out April 12 on Ropeadope

Ropeadope is excited to announce the April 12, 2024 release of 150 Million Gold Francs, the latest album by renowned jazz drummer Obed Calvaire. When asked why he named his new album 150 Million Gold Francs, he explains, “to engage curiosity. People definitely know Haiti has been struggling — but how many people actually know the history behind how that struggle started?”

“So if you see that title,” he continues, “what does that mean?”

The answer to that question has intrigued, and haunted, Calvaire for many years. Born of Haitian parentage in Miami, he became interested in the tragic deal that shaped his ancestry as a college student: how, after Black slaves fought for and won their independence in the Haitian Revolution, their free nation was extorted by the defeated French colonizers, who used warships to demand an impossible sum of 150 million gold francs in reparations. 

The album’s striking cover art, by Jasmin Ortiz Gonzalez, depicts Calvaire bare-chested with his eyes closed, his outstretched hands shackled in front of that stolen bounty. “It symbolizes how we have nothing else to take,” Calvaire says, “how we are still locked into this slave mentality.” 

In essence, the Haitian people, who’d achieved a glorious and unprecedented act of liberation, were made to suffer for it — shunned in global trade for their bravery, and forced to handle a debt whose aftereffects continue to shape the country’s immeasurable hardships. “We’re still paying for the fact that we were the first Black republic to gain our independence,” Calvaire says.

But 150 Million Gold Francs is by no means an album-length lament. Rather, it’s a spirited celebration of the profound richness of the land and the culture — an elegy for Haiti’s dire past as well as a hopeful vision for the country’s future, and an homage to its unstoppably optimistic people.

It is also a deeply personal project undertaken by one of the finest drummers of his generation, whose current credits include Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Dave Holland, Sean Jones and other luminaries. Joining Calvaire on his journey is a unique assemblage of mostly Haitian and Haitian-American musicians — alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, keyboardists Harold St. Louis and Sullivan Fortner, guitarist Dener Ceide, and bassists Addi Lafosse and Jonathan Michel — some of whom Calvaire first collaborated with as a child. 

It’s this shared heritage that makes for a kind of extrasensory ensemble rapport — a seamless meeting of modern-jazz mastery with bouncing cadences and evocative electronic sounds that conjure up the thrill of Port-au-Prince at street level. “​​There are certain rhythmic phrases that we play that trigger something else — and that something you can only know if you were raised in this musical environment,” Calvaire says. Remarkably, he handles the slippery polyrhythms covered by multiple percussionists in Haitian music on his drum kit alone — with no overdubs. “To be in this position, which I rarely am, where everyone understands that language — and it is a language — oh man, it’s like a kid in a candy store.”     

For Calvaire, that last figure of speech is a loaded one. Though Calvaire’s paternal grandfather was a Haitian Vodou priest, and his maternal grandmother also participated in that religion, the drummer’s own parents raised their son in a home of Protestant austerity, for which he is thankful today. In place of television and mainstream pop music, he spent his childhood being active outdoors, listening to the Haitian radio his parents allowed, and, later, practicing his drums obsessively. Some of his earliest and most impactful musical experiences took place during marathon 40 Days and 40 Nights revivals. “You’re basically in church every day,” Calvaire remembers. “And there are moments when the drummer wouldn’t show up. So I’d get on the drums and start playing — and then it got serious for me, to the point where I became the main drummer.”  

Neighboring churches would visit these revivals to perform and join in the music, which was often a mix of méringue-descended compas and simple harmony reminiscent of country or folk. One of these visiting congregations had an especially gifted drummer who caught Calvaire’s ear — Harold St. Louis. “We did kids’ stuff,” Calvaire recalls, “like, ‘Oh, I can do this better than you.’ We were very competitive, but we became really good friends and ended up going to the same middle school.” It was then that St. Louis began to home in on the keys, and he stands today as one of the Haitian community’s top keyboardists and producers. Bassist Addi Lafosse — whose father, like Calvaire’s, was a fine singer — attended that same middle school, but he played trumpet then, and picked up the bass after hearing it played by Calvaire, who’d refocused away from the drums for a while. (Let it be known: Great young musicians from Miami cannot be confined to a single instrument.) “So we have a really interesting, unique history,” Calvaire says. 

150 Million Gold Francs announces its element of autobiography out of the gate, with the sound of Calvaire’s mother singing “Sa Pe Fem Anyen,” a Haitian hymn the drummer recalls hearing at those childhood revivals. “Why is my mom’s voice the first thing on the record?” Calvaire asks rhetorically. “Well, when you’re introduced into this world, what’s the first thing you hear? I’m sharing my world with you on this album.” A buoyant arrangement of “Just Friends” lengthens the harmony and hitches an infectious compas groove to the tune, reclaiming the standard from its torch-song origins and recasting it as a toast to cultural roots and camaraderie. 

“Haiti’s Journey” uses undeniable rhythms and Louis’ sonically brazen saxophone to unspool the nation’s history — from prosperity through oppression, natural disaster and, finally, a wish for a brighter tomorrow, one with infrastructure, education, healthcare and political peace. “Sa Nou Fe Nap Peye,” which translates to “We’re paying for what we’ve done,” is a gorgeous expression of unyielding grief over Haiti’s cruel debt. “Sullivan’s intro alone put us in a mood,” Calvaire says. “During rehearsal, I explained what the song was about, and then he found the best notes to put us in that mindset of pure sorrow.” (It’s worth noting that Fortner is the only ensemble member without apparent Haitian heritage, though his hailing from New Orleans, a city that Haitians all but defined culturally, has led Calvaire to question his ancestry. “I think his approach and even his last name, I tell Sullivan all the time, ‘You got some Haitian in you!’” Calvaire laughs.)

The album’s title track flips between the time signatures of 13 and 4 — 13, Calvaire explains, because that odd, unlucky number acts as a kind of musical metaphor for the strangeness of Haiti’s state of tumult and corruption. The futuristic swing of “Gaya Ko” — translation: “Let’s get our s— together! Enough is enough!” — is a fervent call to the Haitian people to end color-based infighting and face down their burdened past.

The closing “Nan Pwen Miray Lanmou Pap Kraze,” which borrows its groove from Coupé Cloué, the legendary singer, guitarist and musical romancer, is a tribute to the limitless power of love. It was a force that Calvaire observed firsthand during his last trip to Haiti, not long after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, when he gave free masterclasses and performances in the name of uplift. “I can’t describe what I saw,” he begins, still sounding shaken. “Buildings on top of buildings. People had nothing, but they were willing to give you the shoes off their feet. That earthquake did not break them. They were so happy, despite their trials and tribulations.”

Throughout seven sublime performances, Obed Calvaire’s 150 Million Gold Francs conveys this distinctively Haitian resilience — the joy that persists despite so much suffering.  

Tracklist:

  1. Sa Pa Fem Anyen
  2. Just Friends
  3. Haiti’s Journey
  4. Sa Nou Fe Nap Peye
  5. 150 Million Gold Francs
  6. Gaya Ko W
  7. Nan pwen miray lanmou pap kraze

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