By Alexander Britell
Before the music, there was football.
Haiti’s premier reggae band was born on Haiti’s football fields, where Alain Moraille would play in what he calls the sport’s “school of life.”
The same friends with whom Moraille competed on Port-au-Prince’s fields eventually became his collaborators in JahNesta, a reggae band which continues to make its mark on the increasingly global reggae scene.
“Before playing music, we were playing ball,” he says.
Despite a dearth of Haiti-sourced reggae to date, the music is broadly appreciated in the country, according to Moraille.
Modern Haitian reggae largely began with Port-au-Prince native Bigga Haitian, who rose to prominence in the 1990s after spending his formative years in Brooklyn.
While Moraille is quick to say JahNesta did not invent Haitian reggae, his group has certainly brought it to the forefront.
“People tend to say JahNesta is the first reggae band in Haiti,” he says. “But I’ll be the first one to say no. Because I was influenced by other artists — at the time, they were doing another type of music, but they would have one reggae song on their album. So it already started there.”
Reggae’s popularity has only grown in the country, he says, though it has always been something of a force.
“It’s not like other types of music where it’s a fashion trend,” he says. “Reggae was already there. When you go into the ghetto, for example, people really listen to reggae music. That’s why it was natural for me to do reggae music in Creole. Because I always knew that people would identify themselves with the music.”
The music resonates in Haiti, he says, because of its message.
“Coming from a third world country, or any country, I think reggae is a music that deals with reality, what people are living,” he says. “As Bob Marley would put it, reggae is ‘news.’ There’s no fiction in roots reggae. It’s real — it’s something that people are living.”
JahNesta, which has grown to include members from Jamaica, Brazil and South Africa, is expanding its portfolio to include songs in English and French, in order to concentrate on the international market — although Moraille said the group would merely change the lyrics — not the message.
“The content is something that is very important to me,” he says. “The more people can dig and understand the message, the better it is. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing music in Creole — that’s where we come from. It’s just to have a broader perspective.”
JahNesta continues to tour, though its membership has seen turnover through the years. A number of players, after touring in the US and Canada, chose to stay abroad, as the political situation got “heavy” in Haiti.
Not much has changed today — and as the domestic political situation continues to face uncertainty, it’s on the mind of Moraille, who says music can be crucial in helping to harmonize the country.
“Music is a big tool — an important to tool,” he says. “I feel that unless we really, deeply change our mindset, our conscience, no politics will be able to change.”
And reggae may even be the solution.
“I would invite the politicians to listen more to reggae,” he says. “Maybe they would be better politicians!”