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October 23, 2008

Wyclef Jean: Haiti's Swagger Man

Wyclef Jean
"Clef" rocks out to promote the
Sundance channel's Iconoclasts series.

Photo: Bill Davilla/Star Tracks

by John Oseid

I wandered over to Restaurant Row in Midtown Manhattan recently, but this time pre-theater dinner wasn't on my agenda. Music star Wyclef Jean's state-of-the-art recording studio Platinum Sound happens to be on the block, and I popped in to talk to "Clef" about Yéle, his development foundation in Haiti. (You can read the Forum interview in this month's issue of Condé Nast Traveler.)

Long before Clef turned to social activism, the Fugees co-founder gained fame as one of the most original musicians and producers of his generation. When he's not banging out global hits like "Hips Don't Lie" with Shakira, his production skills are in great demand among music stars from the Middle East to Bollywood.

I asked Clef what Haitian music he recommends and he named two hip-hop artists, Jimmy O and Black Alex, whom he's grooming for his own production company Sak Pasé Records. Clef is a soft-spoken person, but I like his swagger; the man knows how to promote. It's this quiet swagger that likely enables him to persuade stars like Matt Damon, Brad, and Angelina to visit his foundation in beleaguered Haiti.

I could go on and on about Clef's own recent album, Carnival II (Memoirs of an Immigrant). It's a masterful amalgam of styles and stars: He's joined by Mary J. Blige, Norah Jones, Shakira, and many more. "Fast Car" with Paul Simon is a lovely ballad. "Touch Your Button Carnival Jam" is a 13-minute spin around carnival music styles from Brazil to Trinidad that will have you jumping around the house. "Sweetest Girl" with Akon and Lil Wayne and "Slowdown" with T.I. are bona fide hits.

While you're on the Clef bender, pick up his 1997 Carnival album. Here's the fine video to the beautiful ballad "Gone Till November" to whet your appetite. Bob Dylan makes a cameo.

More Music:
* A few weeks ago, I was right up front when Clef performed at a small party in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Clef, Richard Branson, and Clive Davis were there to promote the Sundance Channel's Iconoclasts series, which brings together "creative visionaries" to talk about their crafts. Clef was paired with Venus Williams for a segment that airs November 13 at 10 p.m. Eastern Time.
* If you happen to be in New Orleans tomorrow night, October 24, Clef will open the tenth edition of the three-day Voodoo Experience concert series.
* In homage to the land of his birth, in 2004 Clef released a bilingual album called Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101.
* In Conde Nast Traveler's Forum interview, Clef discussed Yéle's work in the infamous Cité Soleil slums. Clef produced and wrote much of the music for the film Ghosts of Cité Soleil. Shot in 2004 in the tumultuous days of President Aristide, it depicts the graphic and violent story of chimères, or gang leaders. Here is A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times.
* You can find plenty of Clef's best-known videos on his official YouTube site.
* If you're curious about exploring more Haitian music styles like konpa or mizik rasin, check out the sites OpaMizik.com and Heritage Konpa.
* Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren's classic 1950s documentary on the spiritual rituals of vodou, was released on DVD last year.
* Haitian bands are always the biggest, loudest and most popular at Brooklyn's annual West Indian-American Carnival Parade on Labor Day.

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