Coupé Cloué et L'Ensemble Select, Sôciss
It seems that most new planets, especially those recent add-ons within our ever-expanding solar system, are discovered by more and less the same process. As I've been told, astronomers figure out where a planet ought to be and proceed to case the neighborhood with enhanced scrutiny. Often as not, these guys get lucky by informed means and something turns up.
By rights, then, it should have made sense that I'd gravitate to Haitian music. The western side of the island known as Hispaniola still holds the greatest concentration of African émigrés (that is a euphemism, folks) in the Caribbean. Also, Haiti occupies midddle ground, er, sea between Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba; records from each of the latter three convinced me that equatorial musicians are second to none, all the better if they've honed their craft in comparative isolation on some island. Then there are the fabulous corollary attractions of Haiti to consider: native brews, exotic combustibles, populous bat and insect colonies, bizarre syncretic religions (and the oppressive dictatorships that exploit same), zombies and so much more.
I'm opting not to snow all of you with an account of musical detective work in exotic climes that led me to Coupé Cloué. Instead, I will own up and reveal that I first heard Gesner Henry and his impossibly cool compas band L'Ensemble Select in a barn in upstate New York, more than likely during a late '80s game of table tennis. The barn in question belonged to an English expatriate, John Storm Roberts. Though Roberts delighted in raising ducks and chickens on a Dutchess County farm, his principal concern was Original Music, the first niche record company devoted to nurturing a then-nascent world music audience. A convincing case could be made for the fact that Roberts' first release on the label, the continent-spanning compilation Africa Dances, kick-started the whole worldbeat issue. (Though as good a case could be made for Robert Christgau's favorable review that appeared in The Village Voice a year or two after the album's release; to that point, circa '82, a great many copies of the record had been languishing in Roberts' closet).
Original Music grew through the '80s, both as a record label and a mail-order source of lp's and cassettes and, later, compact discs from faraway places with popular music of their own. That other countries made their own popular music, being music about cars and girls and fast money, music to do the horizontal mambo to — rather than the tuned rock- and log-beating that preoccupied most ethnomusical types to that point — wasn't news to Roberts. He'd been stationed throughout Africa as a UNESCO employee and had assiduously purchased the local top ten wherever he'd lived. Interest in indigenous pop was the focus of Roberts' writing (Black Music of Two Worlds, The Latin Tinge), his own field recordings (as issued by Nonesuch Explorer and Folkways labels) and definitely his Original Music imprint.
I moved upstate from Manhattan in 1985. Once settled, I made a point of seeking out Roberts' farm and soon enough found myself editing and remastering Original Music compilations in my studio. Many happy days were spent in the barn housing Original, a drafty, miserably cold affair in winter, so much more fun in the warmer seasons. Roberts set up a ping-pong table in the main room, the scene of endless matches between Original employees and visitors as the stereo blasted Congolese soukous, beguine from Martinique, than ko from Southeast Asia or old jazz sides by King Oliver. On a given summer day, the ping-pong ball's report bounced off the roof beams, pets of various species wandered through 'the office' and a record I'd only just heard would set a hook in my consciousness, usually in the same moment that a winning serve had cost me a point; happily, I recall Najma's Anglo-Indo hybrid Qareeb as one of those mid-game revelations. Sôccis, by Coupé Cloué et L'Ensemble Select, was another.
Here's what I actually know about Coupé Cloué, a.k.a. Gesner Henry: He was born in 1925 in Leogane, Haiti. He won renown first as a professional football star. Gesner's nickname, typical of his sly nature, was a multifold pun on both soccer skills and sexual prowess. His musical career lasted some forty years, beginning with Trio Crystal, later renamed Trio Select which then morphed into L'Ensemble Select by the early '70s. In that time, Coupé Cloué managed a brainy and sensuous meld of old-school twobadou style (its guitar technique imported from Cuba by cane-cutters), island folk rhythms, Haitian méringue and jazz. He popularized electric guitar in Haiti's pop music. Singing in Francophone patois, from the beginning Henry evinced a knack for double entendre. (Though the cover photo and the title of today's album, Sôciss, nearly qualifies as a single entendre, one about as subtle as a flying anvil.) And so, another reason to enjoy Coupé Cloué: Gesner Henry was wonderfully rude, as remains obvious to Haitians and honkies alike. Most of his songs featured extended monologues set to music, commentaries on life and love and sex, the human condition at a humid latitude; imagine Balzac telling dirty jokes while leading an irresistable dance band. Gesner's own delivery alternated between song and speech much like that of his American counterpart, Andre Williams, another transcendental hedonist.
The guitar interplay within L'Ensemble Select much resembles that heard in Congolese rumba-rock or soukous, the stuff of my initial (and future) NCIP posts. Gesner Henry always claimed that he had not heard soukous prior to visiting the Congo in 1975. Not surprisingly, Henry & Co. were très populaire in Africa and remained so at home. Indeed, Coupé Cloué may have been too popular for their own good in Haiti, as they were often asked to perform at parties held by the Tonton Macoutes, the dreaded secret police force maintained by dictator Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier. Gesner Henry was sensitive to criticism of these gigs, deflecting charges that he supported a corrupt regime by pointing out that an invitation from the Tonton Macoutes was one that you couldn't refuse.
Gesner Henry died at age seventy-three in 1998, about four weeks after his final performance. Like Pamelo Mounk'a, Henry was a victim of diabetes. It saddens me, that there won't be any more records by Coupé Cloué; I wish there were more like him. Other Haitian bands like Boukman Eksperyans and Tabou Combo and RAM more recently have made inroads with international audiences; while they're each one fine in their own right, they all seem more than a bit polite. None possess the rootsy, lo-fi raunch of Gesner and his ensemble of horn-dogs. Someone once described Neil Young's Crazy Horse as being the antithesis of slick, looking like a band made up of car thieves. To judge by the picaresque verve evident in every note of their music, Coupé Cloué et L'Ensemble Select played like a band of car thieves.