From a tender age, Godwin Louis knew he wanted to spend his life immersed in music. He started by playing the piano and quickly traversed to the saxophone, all the while being influenced by the potent cultures of America and Haiti. Now a growing name on the global jazz circuit, he is composing original pieces, refining his sense of style and exploring new musical horizons.
Ace saxophonist speaks of his ancestral Haiti, life in the United States and tours that have taken him around the globe.
Haiti’s golden jazz boy Godwin Louis knows how to coax the most magnificent sounds from his instrument of choice: the saxophone. He was born in New York to Haitian parents, and in 1994, when he was five years old, the entire family moved back to Haiti. He remained there for a number of years, deeply immersed in its rich creole culture that would serve as a springboard for his musical talent.
In Haiti he started to become infected with the soothing sounds of jazz, not because of what he heard all around him but due to CDs an uncle sent him – perhaps hoping to hook the young boy. The uncle was a jazz lover and play ed jazz guitar. If that was the aim, it certainly worked. Godwin not only f ell in love with jazz but started playing the saxophone when he was nine, an incredibly young age to take up what many consider to be a tricky and challenging instrument to play.
At any rate, Godwin was already something of a music prodigy, playing the piano from the age of five. He had developed an interest in the saxophone, but was yet to play it. In Haiti, he finally took it up, describing it during an interview at the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival in January as a, “Compromise”, with his family as he transitioned to the new instrument. His father, a pastor, had wanted him to continue with the piano, which he vie being more versatile and easier to play.
Deep and lasting influences
Godwin is now back in New York, wher e he is based, and says the cultures of the vibrant city and wider America, along with the Creole heritage of Haiti, are fun damental influences on his music.
“It’s influenced my music a lot,” he says, “because through my research – I’ve also done extensive research in music – I’ve found that if it wasn’t for Haiti, jazz as we know it today would not be the same.”
“That’s because,” he says, “during the Caribbean country’s history, its peoples migrated to parts of the United States, bringing their music, cuisine and other intrinsic elements of their culture with them.” He continues, “Being of Haitian descent has, I think, helped me a lot,” Godwin says of his musical development and through it all, one thing he strives to do is to “bring Haiti to the forefront.” He says that the Haitian aspect of his background makes him immensely proud of who he is and what he does, and that one day he hopes more people will become aware of Haiti’s fundamental role in the development of jazz.
It all stems from “The Motherland” – Africa, especially Nigeria, Benin and other areas of the vast continent. Godwin explains how Haitian’ s unique jazz and swing evolved their own individual rhythms, “I would say the European influences are more harmonic ones, such as from Chopin and similar structural harmonies.”
A battle to be heard
“To me jazz is an American struggle – Mississippi Delta meets the Creole culture of New Orleans,” Godwin says, “Whenever I travel abroad and I hear Cuban jazz, French jazz, it has to include the Blues… just my opinion. To call it jazz, it has to have an element of the blues.”
For Godwin, the Blues can only be done right in the United States, and nowhere else, because it’s unique to the history of the country, “The Blues came out of serious oppression. Jazz is definitely American; it has nothing to do with Africa. It’s a different thing. The oppression that occurred in the United States was very unique; that’s why the Blues is so unique (there).” So “in order to master the Blues, one has to live in the United States and experience that different dynamic.” That is precisely what he has done.
Godwin still has his first saxophone, a r are make that he cherishes. Because he was well grounded in music theory, from playing the piano, it only took him two lessons to learn the saxophone. “All I needed to know was pretty much the notes,” he recalls. By the time he went back to the US, around three years after moving to Haiti, setting in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he was already at the stage where he was improvising with it.
On the world stages Godwin and his sax have been performing allover the world, including tours of China and Europe (Spain, France and Italy), and with all sorts of big names in the jazz world. He has also been on Broadway, playing his instrument as part of a production called After Midnight that ran for nine months.
When compo sing, Godwin uses the piano along with this sax, and in fact relies more heavily on tinkling the ivory in coming up with new tunes that sparkle. “It’s because it’s a more visual instrument to play,” he says, “in terms of being able to see all the notes at once, and so the piano is the foundation of his composition routine.”
Being on the road is tough for any artist, and Godwin is no different. Last year was the mo st he ever travelled, and in total he was only home in New York for 40 days. That presents difficulties in his relationships with friends and families. But despite that, he ’s not fazed by all the different places and cultures he finds himself in (his next trip is to Seoul, South Korea.)
“The world is very similar. You have the United States, and then the soccer countries, and then “other”
Soccer country’ theory
During his travels to various countries, Godwin has observed certain patterns. For instance, he noticed that in countries where soccer is the most popular sport, there are a lot of cultural similarities, such as love and respect of family and other positive aspects that he sums up as an overall, “Joie de vivre.” He adds: “And then America has a completely different thing because again, that’s not the number one sport – we don’t even call it soccer there. And then you have the Middle East – it has that similar thing, but because of history, it’s very different.”
Last year he was in the Middle East – in Qatar for six weeks, with New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He saw many resemblances to Haiti, in terms of the soccer, or football, culture, as he calls it, “These are some of the things I’ve picked up travelling on the road.”
So where does this globe-trotting jazz maestro actually call home? “I definitely call home New York because I realise New York is the reason I am who I am, because of the whole notion of freedom of speech, explore your mind, be yourself, play – there are no wrong notes!”