By Darwin Manning
An assortment of rhythms and melodies graced Herrick Chapel last Tuesday evening, transforming the hall into a foreign space to many members of the Grinnell community. Ti-Coca and Wanga Nègès, Haiti’s most popular troubadour group, commented on the history of turning the past into parable.
Wanga Nègès consists of six members, who bring in a host of different textures and colors to the music. On lead vocals and maracas is David Mettelus—aka Ti-Coca—Beniste Belony on the accordion, Wilfrid Bolané on the bass, Mathieu Chertoute on the conga and Richard Hector with the banjo.
The group has performed all over, from cameos in French feature films and rousing shows at major European venues, to tents at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
The group has been travelling all over the United States, and is currently in the midst of a 28-day tour sponsored by Center Stage. Center Stage, according to the U.S. State Department, is a public diplomacy initiative designed to “bring people together and foster greater understanding.” The program brings inspirational artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan to the United States.
“One of the committee members happened to be from Hampshire, Iowa,” said Rachel Bly, Conference Operations and Events. “Iowa became an area that this group would come to, and so we were chosen to be one of the places to host them.”
In addition to the Tuesday evening show, Wanga-Nègès performed in Tony Perman’s class earlier the same day and with the Too Many Strings Band in the afterschool program for kids at the Grinnell Arts Center and Gallery.
Additionally, the band has been able to learn not only about the College, but the town as well by attending the Firefighters’ breakfast on Sunday.
This group brings a truly unique depth of voices as they encompass elements of Haitian music, their African ancestry and Latin American music. They might also bring some elements of Zydeco into their music, though this is unintentional, as they once visited Louisiana and after hearing the music there, they were surprised by the similarities to their own.
“They try to feature on stage traditional Voodoo rhythms like Petwo and Yanvalou. Also, they bring in Ibo and Congo, which are African rhythms that Haitians have retained from their ancestors,” Lathome said. “Bolero, Compas, Contredans can all be heard as well, which brings in Latin American influence and gives them a truly global sound.”
Given that this is Grinnell’s first exposure to Center Stage’s program, the College has embraced it full on as it brings an international edge to the Public Events Series.
“Each location has their own tone and so the audience will reflect that, in some cities they start playing and the audience will naturally get up,” Lathome said. “From town to city, it is very different but it’s their job to entice the public, sometimes its easier, sometimes harder.”
The hope is that this will be a lasting partnership and that Grinnell will be considered as a venue for future groups that Center Stage picks.
“One of the beautiful things is once you do it, you are looked at as a place that could potentially do this again, and so we are now looked at as a potential location for these events,” Bly said.