The night started off awkwardly, but by show's end, a master percussionist of Haiti had the Musical Instrument Museum audience in stitches.
On Friday night, Gaston "Bonga" Jean-Baptiste and his five-piece ensemble presented mizik rasin, otherwise known as Afro-Haitian roots music. The percussion-heavy group featured Bonga and two male drummers/little instrument shakers/horn blowers as well as two female backup vocalists/dancers/percussion adders who interpreted a style of Haitian music that's intensely entrenched in religion and complex Vodou rhythms.
Predominantly dealing with songs about love, religion, and "some crazy stuff we can't explain," said Bonga, the group played busier numbers that featured handmade percussion instruments, tambourine kick drum, and audience participation as well as introspective tunes heavy on the kalimba, harmonica, and clave. At one point, Bonga played "Jingle Bells" in the most creative fashion -- with breath exhales whose tones were controlled and manipulated by handclaps inches away from his mouth. (You had to see it to believe it).
Earlier in the evening, Bonga performed his due diligence during a "pre-concert talk" that felt forced and unnecessary. Catering to the generic American that equates Haiti with "earthquake," Bonga immediately launched into a Haiti for Dummies version of the country's post-disaster progress that elicited half-thought-out rebuttals and questions from audience members. At one point, Bonga responded to one of the inquiries by saying, "I'd rather be playing music right now. I didn't want to talk, but the museum told me to."
Even though Bonga's deliverance came from a lighthearted, non-accusatory place, the MIM's obvious programming fumble was further exposed.