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Ram - RAM 7: August 1791 Music Album Reviews

With history and folklore as its backdrop, the Haitian band moves further away from Western styles to focus on Creole tradition and West African roots.

Because spirit guides are an inherent part of RAM’s music, it is not at all surprising that sleeve notes to the newest album by Richard A. Morse’s Port-au-Prince-based rasin band contain dedications to two recently departed loved ones who also happen to be great beacons for RAM 7: August 1791. The first dedication is to Emerante “Emy” de Pradines Morse, Richard’s mother, a matriarch of Haiti’s modern folkloric traditions (and daughter of Kandjo de Pradines, a populist giant of Haitian song and strong believer in vodou’s cultural weight as part of the country’s identity). The second is to Jonathan Demme, famed Hollywood director and lifelong gringo champion of global rhythms, who in 1993 placed RAM, then at the dawn of their career, on the soundtrack of Philadelphia, his film about the AIDS crisis. Both are giant figures in RAM and Morse’s history, and on August 1791, the mix of personal and national accounts is the main story.

Morse grew up in the U.S., yet his Haitian influence was always strong. An island vibe can even be gleaned in the music of the Groceries, his late-1970s/early-1980s new wave band that played around Jersey and downtown NYC (often sharing bills with Regressive Aid, a proto-jazzcore group whose bassist, Andrew Weiss, went on to fame with Ween and Rollins Band; Weiss has been helping Morse make RAM albums since 2001’s RAM III: Kité Yo Palé, and his musical snarl is evident on RAM 7). By the late ’80s, Morse moved to Port-au-Prince to reconnect with his heritage and ended up running the city’s historic Hotel Oloffson. RAM formed there in 1990 (they still have a weekly residency at the hotel). They became aligned with mizik rasin, an ’80s movement of contemporary Haitian musicians who mixed rock and related styles with the folkloric ideas of vodou, especially its symbolic role in invoking Haiti’s revolutionary and spiritual history and African roots. (And its Carnival role of speaking truth to Haiti’s strong-man rulers.)

RAM is a long-term, multi-familial concern—Morse’s wife Lunise (vocals) and son William (guitar) are both members, while drummers Wichemon Thelus and his uncle, Dieuveut Thelus, are second-generation RAM players. Yet it also reflects Morse’s exploration of his ancestry; the more embedded he became in Haiti, the more the band’s focus did too. Where once RAM’s recordings fused post-punk’s global vocabulary with Haiti’s deeply rooted traditions into pop-like, world-music polyglot, most Western ideals have been receding. Which is why, like its 2016 predecessor, RAM 7: August 1791 is an all-Creole affair, consisting almost entirely of folk and ceremony songs that are deftly intricate (up to nine percussion instruments on some tracks), sonically blasphemous (fuzzy metallic electric guitar tones square off with single-note tin rara horns), and full of sharp rhythmic turns. The central joy of this album, which is named after the month in which Saint Domingue slaves first conceived their uprising against French colonists, is how naturally it melds the past and the future, consistently West African in its Haitian-ness as it strives to define the future sound of traditionalism.

Such fusions sparkle on August 1791’s upbeat numbers. The musical intensity of the juxtapositions—keyboard and horn lines from Caribbean dance music; the complex spiritual drumming of Ebo, Kongo, and Dahomey generations and Creole descendents; post-shredder guitar riffs, all mixing in the service of folk songs with ancient themes—can be overpowering. The opener, “Danmbala Elouwe,” musically recontextualizes a Dahomey ceremony piece, with Yonel Vendredi’s lead guitar bursting like sunlight through the drum line. The remarkable “Otsya” tackles herbalism as both practice and potential spirit-world currency, thrashing with abandon. “Dawomen Dakò” paints a Black Atlantic historical scene of an anti-colonial pact between Africans and Haitians. And “St. Clair,” a galloping medley of three songs—two traditional verses about Maman Brigitte, one of vodou’s grand spirits (Queen of the Cemetery), followed by an original RAM Carnival verse about a clairvoyant named Claire—stokes the flames at an almost soca-like breakneck. In fine folkloric fashion, most of the songs are short on lyrics and rich with choral harmonies, when Richard and Lunise’s solo voices are not leading a call-and-response refrain. This is big-crowd party music, first and foremost, ritualistic in the best ways.

The few reflective moments on August 1791 are no less important—full-body sighs and acknowledgements of loss that present RAM as a multi-dimensional vehicle, emotional troubadours and not simply tricksters, holy rollers and storytellers. Yet it’s never long before the band’s songs re-enter the narrative slipstream and begin stirring history’s racket anew. Their beacons are spirits, after all, continuing to breathe life into those they left behind.

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