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Off the beaten path, Haiti's jazz festival comes of age

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Port-au-Prince (AFP)

At a time when most of the world's jazz capitals are buried under snow or suffering through sub-zero temperatures, Haiti is offering fans a week of outdoor concerts showcasing the best talents in the business in a balmy Caribbean clime.

Now in its thirteenth year, PaPJazz, as the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince styles itself, is aiming high.

"Our ambition is to be the Caribbean jazz festival, the benchmark in terms of both organization and programming," explains Milena Sandler, director of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, which organizes the festival.

Proving that 13 isn't always an unlucky number, the festival this year has secured for the first time the talents of Cecile McLorin Salvant, currently one of the biggest singers in the world of jazz.

They had been trying to lure the 29-year-old American to the Haitian capital for the past five years without success.

But if PaPJazz can now secure the biggest global stars, its survival still hangs by a thread.

"Putting on a festival anywhere is complicated. In Haiti, especially so," says Sandler. "But it's a challenge we take on every year because we love what we do," she adds.

The Caribbean's poorest economy is racked by a series of seemingly never-ending crises; right now, it's chronic fuel shortages that have put the festival organizers' nerves to the test.

The few gas stations in Port-au-Prince are thronged by dozens of vehicles, a nightmare that gave pause to even the most passionate of jazz fans.

But thanks to carpooling and black market fuel, plenty of members of the public were able to get themselves to the Saturday opening held in the grounds of a major hotel.

"I'm always in awe of the results the team in Haiti is able to get because things are never easy here. It's exceptional," says Jeanine Millet, a festival-goer who says she hasn't missed an edition of PaPjazz since it began in 2007.

- Mentoring future stars -

"I feel so blessed to be in this shithole country," American trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard said at the end of his set, reprising with irony an expression reportedly used by US President Donald Trump to describe Haiti and a number of African countries.

Blanchard, who counts director Spike Lee as a friend and has written scores for a number of his movies including "BlacKkKlansman," was on his first visit to Haiti -- but could not hide his disdain for the billionaire leader of his own country.

"Frankly, it's unnerving to think that someone can look at here and dare to put that comment on any human being," said Blanchard, who was born in New Orleans and says of Haiti: "I really feel like at home, I feel that I have roots here."

Though not the biggest name on the global jazz scene, PaPjazz is forging a unique identity for itself as a place where giants of the genre can pass on their wisdom to novices.

Blanchard, who has no fewer than five Grammys under his belt, spent an hour Saturday morning providing tips and mentorship to young Haitian trumpeters.

"The passion that people have for creativity and music in this country, it's just logical that there is a jazz festival here, that mixes the international artists with local artists" he said at the end of the workshop.

Still buzzing from the thrill of playing with his idol, Toussaint Smith Alain says he is "really happy to have been able to rub shoulders with this talent."

"Really thank you to the jazz festival that offers this great opportunity to us Haitians while many countries do not have this chance," says the 24-year-old.

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