Album Review of

Written by Joe Ross
January 31, 2023 - 1:36pm EST
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Appearing at #23 on The Roots Music Report's Top World Album Chart for 2022, Wesli’s Tradisyon is the first of a two-part project that retells the story of Haiti’s past and imagines its future.  The Montreal-based winner of the prestigious 2019 JUNO Award, Wesli says that you have to know where you’re from in order to know where you’re going. The sixth album from Wesli has 19 songs on Tradisyon that explore traditional chants from the voodoo religion, as well as songs incorporating traditional yanvalou, pétro, congo, nago, igbo or dahomé rhythms. “Wawa Sé Rèl O (Hommage à Wawa Rasin Ganga)” has a more explosive carnival rara rhythm, and at least five tracks feature more lilting, folksy twoubadou songs.

Opening with a thrilling call of the koné, a metal trumpet used in carnival parades, “Peyizan Yo” is a rallying cry for  Haitian farmers, the core of the island’s economy and sustenance. “Fè Yo Wè Kongo Banda” is a traditional song used in Lakou Congo ceremonies to call the spirits together. Sung by a Samba (a preacher of the Afro-Haitian cultural tradition), the song often begins a cappella before the whole community lifts their voices and pounds drums in celebration. “Samba” is a tribute to Azor Rasin Mapou, one of the most influential artists in Haitian voodoo culture.

Other album standouts include Ba Li La Vi (Remix), Peze Café, Makonay and Kontém Rakontém (Hommage à Eric Charles), the latter praising a founder of the band Haiti Twoubadou that in the 1990s revived the twoudabou folk music style. The banjo-led “Kay Koulé Trouba” describes a leaking house, a metaphor for the fragile condition of Haiti’s cultural values in the present day. “Makonay” is a call for unity of all Haitians with their own diverse values. “Trouba Ewa” presents a modern lover’s story with the traditional sounds of Haitian folk music in a unique, captivating arrangement dedicated to present-day Haiti. The foundational instrumentation of guitars, bass and percussion is highlighted with occasional colorings of violin, banjo, flute, cello, ukulele, accordion or keyboards. Pulsating rhythms and layered backing vocals all combine to create a very pleasant groove.

In the upbeat reggae-influenced “Le Soleil Descend,” Wesli and Quebec singer-songwriter Paul Cargnello sing about breaking down barriers and uniting under the sun. Congolese drummer Kizaba joins Wesli on “Peze Café,” a 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, the song and its parable gather a new powerful meaning.           

Wesli’s past projects have been well received. Born Wesley Louissaint, the young singer released Immigrand Deluxe in 2017 with classic songs fusing Haitian traditional music with reggae and rap, ska and funk. He followed that about a year later with his Rapadou Kreyol project that continued to build his legion of fans for his broad, enjoyable mix of Haitian music with reggae, pop and rock. While Rapadou Kreyol was done mainly for the Creole culture, Tradisyon has more of an African emphasis. Wesli vocalizes his lyrics in a relaxed, perceptive manner that draws you in although liner notes don’t provide any clue to their meaning. Despite that shortcoming, Tradisyon appears to be a strong return of the singer to his musical roots, arranged in a contemporary way that preserves their enthralling richness of melody, rhythm and spirit.

To accomplish this ambitious Tradisyon project, Wesli spent several years exploring often hidden facets of Haitian traditions. He visited lakous, gathering places for practitioners of Haiti’s voodoo religion, to learn songs in African languages brought to Haiti hundreds of years ago. Wesli honed his skills at a wide range of instruments, and he reconnected with the profound spirituality and philosophy of Afro-Haitian beliefs, which represent the inspiration, motivation and very soul of Haitian culture. With the growing recognition of his music, Wesli hopes that other young Haitian musicians will see it as a sign that they too can inspire change with their joyful, passionate music or craft.

I look forward to hearing Wesli’s next album, Tradisyon, Part 2, that is planning to explore new directions for the island’s music, blending traditional genres with electronic music, Afrobeat, soul, funk, hip-hop and more. Wesli is well on his way to creating a music that merges ancient and new sounds to define a path forward. (Joe Ross, Roots Music Report)