Buyu Ambroise is one of the greatest jazz musicians living today. He is a legend among saxophone players everywhere. He has traced the path for many other jazz artists, particularly those of Haitian origin. For those who do not know him, this VoicesfromHaiti InnerView is an introduction. You will be inspired by his words.
In this InnerView, Buyu tells VoicesfromHaiti about his own private Haiti; why his family left the island; and his first encounter with the saxophone and Jazz. Here is an innerview of the arwhat this great musician had to say.
(Music performed by Buyu Ambroise and frederic Lasfargeas – Produced by Jazzmel productions, 2004)
On Leaving Haiti
Buyu Ambroise: When I left Haiti the first time, I lived in Congo for two years. I returned to Haiti afterwards. In 1967, I left again—this time, we came to New York. I was just a kid. We left for the same reason many others had to. It was during the dictatorship of François Duvalier. Innocent people were being arrested twenty four hours a day. They ‘disappeared’; family members would never know what became of the ones who had been taken away.
They arrested my uncle and a cousin—for political reasons. A great chunk of the middle class stuffed their belongings in bags, and escaped. The dictatorship was thriving during that time. The ones in charge put a lot of pressure on the people; they put fear inside the people. I recall children being made to participate in parades to honor leaders, whether or not these children’s parents gave permission. You could not opt out of the charade; you had to play along. Or disappear.
That was the reason we left. It was a decision my father made. He wanted us to have an opportunity to live with a certain amount of freedom. A great deal of the country had—in a sense—burned to ashes. Those in power did whatever they wanted to citizens. You could have been sitting in a classroom, they’d come in and drag you out. You never knew what was going to happen.
Still, I would love to return to Haiti now. I would love to submerge myself in the culture. Someone who lives on the outside too long ultimately loses a sense of the day-to-day reality. I would love to let every aspect of the culture fill me up. That would allow my music to come from a deeper place.
On Becoming a Jazz Musician
Buyu Ambroise: Although I grew up in a home that reverberated with music, I had no idea I would play professionally. My father was a pianist and a huge fan of all types of music. I had a cousin who played the flute. During summer vacation, especially, my cousin would bring other musicians to the house; they would perform for hours. Neighbors would dance until the sun came up. My life was enriched by this experience, but I didn’t begin to play an instrument until I moved to New York.
It was completely by accident, too, that I became a saxophonist. At the high school I attended, it was required that students took an ‘art’ class. At first, I was put in a choir. I did not like that class one bit. I was not learning much. Besides, students would pretend to sing. They would simply move their lips, and the teacher could not tell who was singing and who was faking. I could not imagine going to school for the purpose of wasting time. I asked to be placed in a different class. They put me in Band. I was given a flute, but did not like that. The only instrument that was not being used was a saxophone. Immediately after touching the instrument, a certain attachment developed between us.
Still, I didn’t think I would have spent my life as a musician. Our culture dictates that children do not choose music as a profession. It is rare that a musician in Haiti receives the full support of his/her parents. That is part of our tradition. A musician’s life is often quite difficult. For this reason, children are encouraged to pursue science or law degrees instead. Professional success for an artist is, more often than not, unreachable.
I was supposed to be done with music after graduation. But when I purchased a saxophone of my own, the way I felt about music changed. I could play as often as I wanted now with my own instrument. The more I played the more the saxophone wanted me to play it.
A group of neighborhood guys and I started a band. . . something to do as a hobby. It was then that I found Reginal Policar. We made dance music, Konpa music, that sort of thing. We were in college at this time, and played when an opportunity presented itself. The music was supposed to end upon graduation.
I remember a time when my studies at school became more important than music. At the time, I wanted to forget about the sax so much that I kept it far away from me, leaving it at an aunt’s house. And then one day I ran into Ernst Marcelin.
We had been schoolmates. When he saw me without the sax, he asked what I had done with it. I told him I was more focused on school matters and had left it somewhere. Ersnt said, “Go get it.”
That day, another life began for me.
I knew if I wanted to play music professionally, I had to learn about more than just the instrument. I had to research. Study. I had to understand the tool and the ways to use it. I spent days at the library, studying everything I could find. I discovered a program in Harlem called Jazz Mobile, where music lessons were given free of charge. It was then that I heard American Jazz for the first time. I heard legends like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. I began to understand how versatile a language jazz was and is. Through jazz, I began to experience a freedom I had never known. It was like learning a new language.
Language is crucial. When someone cannot express himself in a language, fear takes over. You avoid situations that call for you to speak. You become emotionally mute. As soon as you learn to express yourself, freedom comes.
On the Haitian Artist’s Role in Reconstruction
Buyu Ambroise: The country needs so much. The people need basic things just to survive. Historically, the ones who have the resources prefer to stuff their pockets. They turn their backs on the needy. So much has to change, if the country is to move forward. In the meantime, the artists continue to create the most beautiful art the known world.
Haitian artists, in a sense, make up the national consciousness. This is why I tell my artist friends to let go of all animosity and competiveness; gather our strengths—our art—to help our Haiti. Those who have the funds to donate, make donations. Those who don’t have the money to give, give your time. Share your talent—your gift, your art. If you are a painter, a musician, a writer, create and share your creation however you can. Share our amazing culture.
Haiti, in spite of what people think, produces geniuses. It takes a genius to imagine beauty underneath what remains of the country today. For generations the country has been stumped on, broken, beaten, yet artists continue to imagine a paradisiacal Haiti. With hunger in their bellies, no roofs on their heads, fearless artists continue to create. It takes a genius to be so prolific at imagining so much beauty in the midst of despair. Haitian artists carry the country on their backs. That can be a great burden, but they do it with utmost grace.
Perhaps the day has come for us to ‘reconstruct’ our attitudes toward our artists. Perhaps it is time for us to honor them before sadness and hunger drag them too far beyond our reach.