Hugo Mendez On Haiti, the Sofrito label, and Struggles in Music

Hugo Mendez On Haiti, the Sofrito label, and Struggles in Music
While Haiti is still sadly synonymous to many with violence, poverty and voodoo stereotypes, the island has a vibrant and innovative musical scene that has remained unsung for too long. Enter the two-disc collection Haiti Direct compiled by Sofrito's Hugo Mendez. Originating in East London's Tropical Warehouse Parties, the Sofrito label's been bridging the gap between vintage Latin, Caribbean and African sounds with updated production and exclusive dubplates and edits aimed to fill dance floors across genres. Mendez spoke to Exclaim! via phone from Paris where he discussed the label's formation and the unheralded but incredible musical culture of Haiti.

How did the Sofrito label form and what's its mission?
The original plan was never to start a record label. We used to run events in London in disused warehouse spaces. We were playing the music that we loved. At the time there was no real scene for it and it wasn't really represented. And so we started throwing the parties for ourselves and our friends and they became very successful. So we had a great atmosphere around it but it wasn't really based on any musical purism. We were playing lots of music from the French Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, but it was never a music nerd's night.

Frankie Francis, the other half of Sofrito is a mastering engineer and runs a mastering studio in London. The problem with a lot of that old music is that it's very badly pressed or produced and doesn't sound good on a massive sound system. So we used to cut a lot of acetates and dubplates of tracks because the idea was to present this music the modern club way. We used to do quick edits of tracks and mess around with them and tailor them for the dance floor, cut them on dubplates and they really worked. So we wanted to take it a bit further and the idea is to bring music that isn't really within the realms of, say, house, techno, disco or hip-hop people and really try and bring these sounds to them. These are sounds that can work across the boards, really universal music but it's not exposed in the right way. We're trying to avoid the tag of an archival world music label by any means; it's about party music and dance music that was originally live music from the '70s and '80s. It's something that works for everyone and puts a smile on people's faces. It's not for collectors but for people to dance to.

How did the Haiti Direct compilation come about?
I've been working with music from the French Caribbean, mainly Martinique and Guadalupe for years. I discovered that music through Latin music, and there's always been a huge Haitian influence. There's a history that's not been available to the broad record-buying public and we thought this was a story that needed to be told because it's something that's massively important to a huge amount of people around the world, but because it's not in English and it's not as well known as reggae is. But it's a sound that ultimately fed into zouk in the early '80s and zouk is a music that goes across the Caribbean, South America, West Africa and it's a huge sound that's very ignored in the West. Haiti is definitely one of the cornerstones of Francophone, Trans-Atlantic music.

Could you describe the music on the compilation?
Most of the music on the compilation is based on Compas Direct. There are tracks that are on the funkier end of things, which wouldn't have been in the pop charts in Haiti. It's a sound that ultimately comes out of Haitian folkloric music and the music of the Dominican Republic: the merengue. In Haiti, it was always played a bit slower and there's also a huge Cuban influence from the migrant workers that used to cross over and work there. It's a mixture of all of these influences, as well as jazz from the American occupation. So there are all these different scenes of music in the '50s and an artist named Nemours Jean-Baptiste came up with something he called Compas Direct, which is basically a slowed-down version of merengue with a different arrangement, but very importantly, with creole lyrics, that was played by big bands in casinos and high society. It became the national pop music and was based around big-bands. After that, Mini-Jazz is the same music but it feeds in the European and American rock bands with new electrified sounds, and the Haitians followed suit. You had French music like Johnny Hallyday that was pumped into Haiti, as were Santana and the Doors, who were incredibly influential. But it's all ultimately based around the merengue, but from the 1950s it's progressively slowed down. The album charts that and ends with quite a few Latin tracks, which was and still is popular.

What's the biggest challenge in putting together a project like this?
Finding the money to do it. After that, finding and juggling people who have the licenses, be it the producers, musicians, families or estates of people, to try and tie this stuff together because it was a long time ago and they have spread out across the world. So it's a lot of detective work using the Internet, phone books and contacts, finding people in Brooklyn and the suburbs of Paris. That takes a long time. Also, a lot of these records were released in small numbers so they're quite hard to find in good condition because they've been taken around to many parties over the years. There's also a lot of mastering involved in making the sounds punchy without altering the original music.

What are you hoping listeners can take away from Haiti Direct?
Hopefully they'll discover and enjoy a world of music that, if they haven't heard it before, hopefully they'll fall in love with it, and if they have, it will remind them of their youth or things they haven't yet known about. But importantly, I hope they take away that Haiti is a cultural and musical force in the Caribbean and across much of the world as well. It's very important because there are so many stereotypes both political and cultural. There are still massively ongoing problems now that are important to many people that aren't necessarily Haitian. It's something that has affected the music in Montreal, New York, Paris, Columbia and it's still going on right now.

A portion of the sales of Haiti Direct go to charity. Can you tell me about that?
We felt that with any project to do with Haiti, it's important to show that we're not painting Haiti as a gang-ridden, voodoo-ridden crisis zone, but as a country with lots of problems so we felt that we should give back to help what's going on right now and the efforts being made. So we decided to give a portion of the profits to a charity that's been working in Haiti with the children to support that as well.