My interview and feature on Slow Machete for The Vinyl District
Rolling Stone once described Sigur Ros as “the sound of God weeping tears of gold in heaven.” Slow Machete, a musical collaboration of local artist Joe Shaffer and Haitian sound-makers, is no less otherworldly and intensely moving.
The vibe in certain parts is musically reminiscent of the spirituals written by enslaved African peoples in America; this is ethnomusicology at its finest, devoid of arty, slapped-on electronica stylings to make it palatable for Western consumption.
Even though this was recorded during Shaffer’s many volunteer trips to Haiti, this album is not polemical in its message (and refreshingly free of overbearing Bono-esque humanitarian asides). It is an album that is truly a tribute to Haiti’s spirit, raw and uninhibited and unbridledly beautiful. The harmonium [similar to a reed organ]‘s sound is lushly organic and, mixed with the vocal and other samples, creates a sonic tapestry of something akin to peaking behind the curtain of a really cool place. Slow Machete’s Evening Dust Choir officially releases today free on Bandcamp.
Tell me a little bit about how this project came about. What is its significance to you and how does it relate to the work you do in Haiti?
I’d been going to Haiti for a few years with different NGOs and medical teams, assisting clinics, working in an orphanage, clean water initiatives, and so on. Through these networks, I’d begun making some very close friends who are singers or musicians in Haiti. I recorded an album for them, and that sort of began the relationships that I would later record for this project.
I made this album as a soundtrack for experiences. This is a music group or a collective in a way, and I’m tying these sounds together and writing lyrics that sort of just move the plot along without trying to take the spotlight. Haiti is a wonderful place, music everywhere, honesty and directness in people that’s incredibly refreshing. I can’t ignore the difficult situations people are facing like how horrible cholera is right now, but I think my objective is to give an honest representation of how I perceive the culture, and that culture is incredibly beautiful.
The sound of the album is extremely unique in its strong ethnomusical vibe. Could you talk a little about the special instruments and samples you used?
The recordings are split between a few places: DC, a tunnel in Pittsburgh, Costa Rica, Montevideo, and Cap Haitien, Haiti. I’d record hours and hours of everything and anything then spend the evenings trying to piece things together with field samples, movie samples, and drums that are mostly native percussion with pitched down sounds of machetes (hence the band name).
Two sounds that are prevalent throughout the album—an Indian harmonium and “the 913”—I soldered a few bass pickups and alligator clips in a cigar box that I use a lot for drones and bass sounds. I play that with tuning forks most often.
You sampled a machete chopping?
Correct. I have a machete, and I’d record hitting / chopping / swinging that against a variety of things in my apartment in Costa Rica, then pitch those samples down several half steps.
What do you think of the music scene in DC?
I originally came to DC excited about the experimental/noise scene that’s great here. I love what’s going on with house shows and art house venues, anything that makes people connect more intimately with the music.
Could you talk a little about your musical influences?
I love movie soundtracks. The King’s Speech by Alexandre Desplat—I’ve been in love with recently. The Sneakers soundtrack and Jurassic Park soundtrack were my favorites growing up. Some other faves are Juan Luis Guerra , Compay Segundo, and Rage Against the Machine.
How do you want to move this project forward? Do you plan on releasing this album on vinyl?
I hope so—if there is an interest in it. I would like to play shows, and make videos that match the aesthetic.