Joseph Ray & Lakou Mizik mix Haitian Vodou and Electronic Music on "Leave The Bones" LP

A wildly ambitious album that was five years in the making, we talk to Nero’s Joseph Ray and Lakou Mizik’s Steeve Valcourt about the intense creative process behind Leave The Bones.

13 min
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Aug 6, 2021
Cameron Holbrook

“Spending time in Haiti and digging into their music has truly opened my mind. I’ve traveled the world with Nero, but the place I’ve gone back to most is Haiti. Beautiful, alive, complicated, mystical, musical… it’s all of that. One thing it isn’t is a ‘shithole’,” says Joseph Ray, referring to US President Donald Trump’s offensive, racist remarks about the island nation back in 2018.

Since first visiting Haiti in 2015, Joseph Ray, who’s a GRAMMY Award-winning producer, remixer, and co-founder of the British electronic group Nero, has become entranced by the country’s musical culture. While teaching courses at a music production school in the coastal town of Jacmel, he befriended one of Haiti’s greatest musical exports, the nine-piece band Lakou Mizik. Together, they have spent the past five years crafting a wholly unique collaborative album titled Leave The Bones — out now via Anjunadeep.

Mixing electronic music with the deep musical tradition of Vodou chants, carnival Rara music, French-laced Twoubadou, and Mizik Rasin, Joseph Ray & Lakou Mizik’s 11-track LP is a cross-cultural triumph. It is a coming together of new musical ideas rooted in ceremony that gives us a fresh glimpse of a misrepresented country’s beating, spiritual heart.

We caught up with Joseph Ray and Steeve Valcourt of Lakou Mizik to learn more about their friendship, the recording process behind the highly-anticipated album, and finding the balance between tradition, authenticity, and new sonic explorations.

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Joseph, you fell in love with Haiti after discovering a music engineering school called the Audio Institute in Jacmel, a town located on the country’s south coast. Is that how you first met Steeve?

A friend of mine invited me to visit since she was working there. And then we randomly just drove past the school. And I was like, ‘Oh, wow, a music school in Jacmel? That’s cool. I emailed them, and they invited me to teach a few classes. So I taught two production classes, explained a bit about my background, and did a lesson on how Caribbean music came over to England in the ’70s and ’80s; or Jamaican music, explaining the crossover and how it all kind of all fuses together. That’s where I met Steeve, he’s a teacher there. Afterward, I got to see him play with Lakou Mizik at this beachside venue and go to a traditional ceremony in Jacmal where they performed the songs. I was totally blown away by what I heard.

Steeve, how did Lakou Mizik first form?

In the beginning, it wasn’t a band. It was just a collaboration of a bunch of big names in the culture of Haiti that came together at first to make one song. After the earthquake in 2010, people were putting up camps all around the city because people were scared of sleeping under their houses. Jonas Attis and I were going through the camps, and at one camp we started performing because people were very sad and really didn’t know what to do, because it was the first time we had such a devastating earthquake in Haiti. We started to perform with a conga with a guitar when our now-manager, Zach, saw us performing.

We were [trying] to play traditional songs [with] a modern vibe to appeal to multiple audiences and the new generation. That’s where we’re starting to build that idea. With Zach, our first song was “Peze Kafe.” And the question became, ‘If we want to create a dream team here in Haiti, which artists do we get to choose?’ We pulled from everywhere, and after that song and all the attention it got, the idea of forming the band came in. We started to travel, the band kicked off, and then I got a job at the Audio Institute, where I met my big friend Joe Ray.

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How long has this collaboration been in the works? Did you face any major roadblocks putting the album together?

Steeve: We became friends after he saw us perform at that beachside venue in 2015, and that’s where all of this started. He came back to record some tracks in 2016 and said we’re going to mix electronic music with Voudu music, and I was like, ‘That’s a nice idea, but I don’t see how you’re going to make it happen’ [laughs].

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Joseph: Yeah, absolutely. As Steeve said, it’s a complex project. I knew the kind of potential for this crossover, but I didn’t realize it would take quite so long. And that’s because trying to mix the chants and the drums and some of the instruments and rework it into a more club-oriented design was totally a challenge. In my head, it was way easier than it ended up being. In the end, it was all about trying to find a balance — keeping it respectful and authentic to the original songs and original drums. But some of the drumming patterns in Haiti are so complicated. And there were some songs like “Kite Zo A” where it should be in 12/8 time with like this crazy trippity thing, but the vocals are in 4/4, and I’m like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ But I think we got there in the end, and I’m really happy with it.

Steeve: Throughout the five-year process of making this album, each time we started to learn more from each other and understand how we could take stuff out without losing the authenticity or the spirit of the sound.

Joseph, what were some things you had to learn and adjust in your production methods to help you stay authentic to the sound?

I found that I needed to go back to the original instruments. And actually, they don’t do this in the band, but it’s a Haitian instrument — a conch shell horn — and it’s got this lovely kind of flute sound. So I had some samples of that, and I kind of stretch them out and replace the synths that I had, and then suddenly was like, ‘Oh, okay, this gels more with this more organic, natural acoustic sound now.’ Also, things like the percussive sound of a rum bottle. It’s so cool and just cuts through the mix, but trying to engineer the sound of a rum bottle can take a while.

There was also this collection of sounds recorded in the 1930s by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, which really filled the gaps in my knowledge of Haitian music, and we ended up covering a song off that called “Nou Tout Se Moun” — a beautiful old piece about kind of community and solidarity.

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What is the story and meaning behind the album title, Leave The Bones?

Steeve: Leave The Bones is about the spirit of passing something down to a new generation: that antique vibe, that ancient vibe. In Haiti, they say ‘You eat the meat, but you leave the bones,’ meaning that if you eat everything, you leave nothing for the generation that comes after you. You need to pass that tradition down. So when you eat the meat, remember to leave the bone behind for the new generation to understand your path and to learn from it.

With our song “Ogou (Pran Ka Mwen),” and the music video we created for it, you see the old generation leading their young guests through the woods to the village, so that’s the point. You have to show them how they would work. And of course, you enjoy everything, you eat the meat, but you must lead the passage for the other generation.

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Can you tell us a bit more about the stunning music videos you’ve put together ahead of the album’s release?

Joseph: The director actually taught at the Cine Institute in Jacmal, which is linked to the Audio Institute, so it’s very cool that it was put together like that. With the videos, we wanted to show people who don’t know anything about Haitian culture where the songs come from and the setting that inspired the album rather than some generic video.

We followed this father and son around during Carnival and got some great footage of the town coming to life and the crazy kinds of colors with everyone putting on paint and wearing masks. We got great footage of a local dancer in Jacmal named Jasmine as well. She’s never done something like that on camera before, and she was telling us how much it meant to her as a Haitian woman to dance to these spiritual songs. We just wanted to set the scene for people who don’t know anything about it, which I understand because I didn’t know anything about the place when I arrived. It was a blast to the senses and one I want to share.

After five years of working on Leave The Bones, how are you feeling now that it is finally coming out?

Steeve: This album is a journey that covers all the aspects of our spirituality. You have love, passing down tradition, carrying your culture with you, water… you have all this, but it’s really spiritually like you were doing it in a ceremony. So the album, for me, is a ceremony of true life and harmony.

We worked a lot on this album, and I think people will really enjoy it. I want to push people to listen with closed doors and closed eyes and go completely under. So while you’ll enjoy moving to it, they are not just songs to dance to. It’s a communion of tradition, passing from roots music to electronic music.

Joseph Ray & Lakou Mizik’s album Leave The Bones is out now via Anjunadeep.

Cameron Holbrook is Beatportal’s North American Editor. Find him on Twitter.

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