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It is no surprise when many talented Haitian musicians make a switch toward the growing Kreyol Jazz movement. The unexpected comes when you see a non Caribbean Jazz musician making a surprise detour not only to play, but to be a leader on a Kreyol Jazz group. American Jazz trumpeter Ken Watters did just that.

Ken teamed up with bassist Yves Abel and trombonist Andre Atkins to create the newest Kreyol Jazz group called RYEL. The band will also have a supporting cast of other talented and creative musicians on the Haitian Jazz scene. The debut CD will be released early spring 2008 on Summit Records and will be distributed worldwide.

KariJazz is please to present this interview with the Co-Leader of the group RYEL, Ken Watters.

KariJazz: You are no stranger to jazz music, but I think your first Haitian Jazz Project is going to be something special. Can you tell us about the group and how you came up with such a project?

Ken Watters: I have been thinking about doing something like this for several years. In fact, my trombonist brother Harry & I have recorded a couple of Haitian-flavored songs (one racine & one yanvaloo) on two of our mainstream jazz CDs from Summit Records… But this is the real thing – this group has an absolute powerhouse rhythm section – referring to the bassist Yves Abel, the drummer, the percussionists, chord players, etc – basically, everything that is NOT a horn. I've been thinking for a while about how much fun it would be for trombonist Andre Atkins & I to play with a band like this. Andre plays trombone with Tabou Combo (among other well-known artists) – he & I have a unique musical bond, in that we phrase & "hear" lines in very
similar ways.

KariJazz: Why RIYEL? How did you come up with such a name?

Ken Watters: The name RIYEL was first brought up by Yves Abel. He initially suggested "Riyel Jazz" & I thought the shortened name RIYEL may be more to-the-point. Yves, by the way, is this new band's co-leader – we are partners on this project.

KariJazz: How long have you been playing with Tabou Combo and how much have you learn from the Haitian music?

Ken Watters: I started with Tabou Combo in April, 1990, played 5 years with the band, then left for about 9 years (during which time I lived in Alabama)… I moved back to NYC in 2003, rejoined the band & have been with them ever since.

Haitian music is incredibly multi-dimensional – there are what seems like a million layers, like an onion. Just when you feel that you are beginning to grasp what is happening, you begin to hear the music in a whole different way – then, your entire perspective changes… From my association with Haitian music, I have learned as much about what is truly important and natural in this art form as I learned at both Manhattan School of Music & University of North Texas. I have played with Tabou for years, but have also worked with other Haitian bands – I learned something from every one. This music will teach you about complex counterpoint, simple but (at the same time) complicated melodic lines, squeezing the most emotion & visceral effect possible out of a few well-placed chords & RHYTHM. The all-important bass & drum team that is responsible for the completely unique "swing" that good Kompa brings… I could think about & talk about what I've learned from Haitian music (in lots of different styles) for hours, actually.

KariJazz: Do you really love Konpa music?

Ken Watters: Yes, I really do. GOOD Kompa music truly "does it" for me – it's one of my absolute favorite genres of music. Now, mediocre Kompa does nothing whatsoever for me… I cannot simply listen to a band play marginal Kompa just for the sake of listening to Kompa. BUT, this is the case with all musical styles, I suppose.

I realize that I must be quite biased, but one of my favorite bands IS Tabou. This is because I tour with them & get a chance to see just how they really do "keep their eyes on the ball" at all times – they know deep-down what is crucial (musically) for their music to work.

I can't get enough of Freres DeJean, Ti Manno, lots of vintage Skah-Shah, Mizik Mizik, RAM, A large amount of Emeline's work, Zekle, Beethova, plus more than I have time to mention…

KariJazz: Beside Tabou Combo, did you play with any other French Caribbean group?

Ken Watters: I have recorded with lots of French-Caribbean & Haitian bands (so many that I cannot remember about half of their names). Everyone who plays in RIYEL has done at least as much of this as I have, actually. We are often called upon to serve as freelance studio musicians, where our role is to do everything in our power to enhance the featured artist's recording.

Aside from Tabou, I have performed live with RaRa Machine, Phantoms, Lakol, Reginald Policard, DOZZ & several other bands & artists. Most of this happened in the 1990s, during my first stint with Tabou. Since returning to the band, it's been almost exclusively Tabou Combo.

KariJazz: What prompted your interest in Afro-Haitian Jazz?

Ken Watters: I was brought into this music by its depth, in terms of all aspects, from the rhythm to the harmonic & melodic possibilities. There is NO "ceiling" to this music & anything & everything (that makes musical sense) can work.

My training & experience is far more mainstream jazz oriented, meaning sometimes / sometimes traditional, acoustic, often swinging jazz that has a solid footing in tradition.

At times, however, I do feel a touch "regulated" by the rules of this music (in terms of long-established, accepted & sometimes expected ways of writing, performing & even recording mainstream jazz). For me, the answer is NOT to turn my energy to "smooth jazz," which is often far less adventurous one-dimensional music in every way than straight-ahead or "mainstream" jazz. The idea of playing Haitian jazz has enticed me since I was first introduced to this music. Here, you have the possibility of playing music with an undeniably REAL, meaning not sequenced, not "parroted," highly improvisational group of musicians that understands the whole picture. That is, everything from just how deep, complex & "studied" sounding, to how emotive & passionate the music must be in order to have the right balance of simultaneous right & left brain impact. As for myself, I do not find this balance (in this way) anywhere else…

KariJazz: As the co-leader of the band, what kind of collaboration do you have with Yves Abel?

Ken Watters: Yves Abel & I have known each other for about 17 years. We first met when I joined Tabou Combo in 1990. At that time, we really didn't know or truly understand each other (as people, NOT as musicians -- we understood each other's playing immediately)... There was a bit of tension between Yves & myself on a few occasions early on, mainly because I was still a "rookie" in the band & to the culture in general. Yves, of course, thought that I was the typical "uptight American," I'm sure... You see, when traveling with ANY band, not just a Haitian band, you absolutely HAVE to learn to roll with the punches & be prepared to instantly accept the situation that you are in from moment-to-moment. And, no matter how uncomfortable the temporary situation may be, complaining about it is NOT a helpful option for anyone involved. One occasion comes to mind right away -- Tabou was finishing up a 6 week tour of the French Antilles & our final weekend was in French Guyana. I was in my early 20s, still a little immature in general & all of us were beyond tired... Well, several of us were standing outside of the hotel waiting on the bus to take us to sound check & I kind of "lost it," so to speak -- talking about how disorganized everything was, etc (and thinking that everyone surely felt to same way as me)... I was wrong to assume this & Yves let me know this in NO uncertain terms. He straightened my attitude out right then & there -- in other words, he delivered me a VERY strong lecture on the dangers of a negative attitude within a band. Yves words that afternoon have stayed with me to this day -- mainly because HE WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. In his own indirect way, Yves taught me to basically ENJOY & APPRECIATE LIFE, no matter what you are doing from minute-to-minute. I mean, there we were in the Caribbean, performing nightly with one of the best bands on the planet, paying our bills by doing this, and basically living life on our own, very cool terms. What is there to complain about in that scenario? Not much...

Anyway, I know that I could've shortened that anecdote, but the point was that Yves taught me long ago to not only always appreciate what I have, but also the sheer importance of utilizing all God-given artistic (and otherwise) abilities that every one of us possesses... As far as we know, we all have just one shot at this life -- we can never forget that & we should try & enjoy every moment that we have.

As for our partnership in RIYEL, Yves lends a CRYSTAL CLEAR perspective to the music that we play together. If I have a musical idea, he will unapologetically give his 2 cents. And I have no problem doing the same with the ideas that he brings to the table. Luckily, we see eye-to-eye on 99% of RIYEL's musical & conceptual ideas.

Plus, both of us have a strong & unified vision for where we would like this band to be in ten years (both artistically & professionally). Obviously, the future is unpredictable, but as a creative musician you have an OBLIGATION to strive to "push the envelope" artistically as much as your personal power allows... And if you don't have a long-term career plan, you will tend to "flounder" & find yourself not moving forward in life (this is simply human nature for most people)...

SO, the original question was "What kind of collaboration do we have..."

Well, so far, it's a very HEALTHY collaboration in every way. We are on the same page musically, we have mutual respect for one another, both artistically & personally & we both understand exactly why we are doing this new band... I can't WAIT for more American jazz audiences to hear him play.

KariJazz: Ken, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. Good luck with your future plans. I am sure that RYEL will make a visible difference on the Jazz scene and I can't wait to see you guys live.

Ken Watters: My pleasure!

Karl Joseph
January 15, 2008

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