Haiti, Fela, and the Superadobe



A woman groans over a pile of rubble in Port-Au-Prince, fighting a shattered building for the remains of her family. A saxophone wails over drums and percussion to a packed crowd on Broadway, building a syncopated call-and-response while bodies writhe in unison. Martin Perna connects the dots: Antibalas, the house band for Fela! on Broadway, was founded by a follower of architect Nader Khalili, whose superadobe building is Haiti’s best bet for rebuilding.


The ruins that once were the presidential palace in Port-Au-Prince tell of the epic devastation that recently visited Haiti. Haiti has always been a place of intense beauty and brutality, its history filled with a mythical assortment of buccaneers and revolutionaries. The fertile grounds that produced coffee and sugar encouraged ruthless labor practices in settlers, and this cultural melting pot on the margins of empire produced a society with a vibrancy similar to New Orleans. Since the rule of “Papa Doc,” “Baby Doc” and their blood-thirsty, U.S.-backed death squad, the Tonton Macoutes, Haiti has been slow to emerge from its legacy of destitution and corruption.


The earthquake, then, rolled through a country already rocked with significant difficulties. The sheer magnitude of the destruction has generated pledges of assistance throughout the world. Haiti’s native son Wyclef Jean was quick to respond, and his organization Yele has already amassed over $2 million through a highly effective text messaging-based donation campaign. Jean, who accompanied UN special envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton on a tour in July, responded to recent accusations that his charity’s accounting practices were on shaky ground. His blog even states an employee of the organization was killed in the violent car-jacking of a make-shift hearse. He was on Oprah Wednesday pleading for aid, praying that Haiti does not turn into a “refugee camp.” Hopefully everything will be sorted out when Friday’s Hope for Haiti benefit concert airs, with Jean co-hosting with George Clooney. The all-star line-up features the likes of Rihanna, Jay-Z, Bono and the Edge, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift and others. Wyclef will be back in Haiti Saturday, helping to rebuild what has been impossibly torn asunder.


Cheap, sustainable housing for Haiti can be achieved using the superadobe technique of Iranian architect Nader Khalili (1936-2008) and his Cal-Earth Institute. Khalili’s building design involves earth-filled sandbags coiled in concentric circles to produce multi-chambered, domed structures. 


The drawbacks include a reliance on curved forms for structural integrity and a need to rubberize the exteriors to face Haiti’s hurricane-prone summers. The upside, though, is considerable: construction requires little training, using the earth dug out of the foundation for building materials. Structures are earthquake sustainable, and Haiti’s low price for labor (estimated at ~ $1.30/ hr in the UN’s recent report encouraging growth in the garment industry) means there are plenty of people who could be employed in cheap rebuilding. Cal-Earth has attracted the attention of NASA, who hopes the superadobe structures can be used for future construction on the moon and Mars. These facts are not lost on Martin Perna.


Perna plays in Antibalas, an American band playing afrobeat, an African reclamation of funk music, itself an Africanized form of R&B. Funk music (a la James Brown) took Rhythm and Blues harmonies, put the beat upfront, and focused on rhythmic interplay where everyone, including the singer, was in the rhythm section. Fela Kuti logically reclaimed funk for Africa, meshing it with jazz, highlife, and Yoruba music. The father of afrobeat was a cult of personality, masterful arranger, fiery politician, and sexed-up hedonist rolled into one undulating, shirtless sire of the ‘phone. One could call Fela the Bob Marley of Nigeria, or perhaps call Bob Marley the Fela of Jamaica.


Fela Kuti and His Koola Lobitos - “Wadele Wah Rohin” (click to download)


Fela’s life is the focus of a Bill T. Jones choreographed, Jay-Z, Will and Jada Smith produced Broadway musical. The hit play is presented in non-linear vignettes that pulsate with Fela’s lifeblood. Its focus is on the radical, inspired productions with his Africa 70 band, missing the opportunity to touch on his death from AIDS. Fela! can be found on a number of “Best of” lists for 2009, due in no small part to Antibalas, the band whose music flows throughout this production.


Ocote Soul Sounds f/ Adrian Quesada - “Electric Cockroach” (click to download)


Martin Perna began Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra in 1998, bringing the afrobeat sound to the masses through extensive gigging in New York and touring in the UK. His recording credits include sessions with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Scarlett Johansson, Ocote Soul Sounds (his side project), and extensive work with TV on the Radio. Perna also lays claim to “conceptual utopian artist”. Along with documenting a road trip between his two homes of Brooklyn and Mexico fueled by vegetable oil, Martin Perna is a follower of Nader Khalili’s work. Perna constructed the superadobe structure El Temazcal in Mexico, recently teaching the technique to New Design High School students via the New Museum’s G:Class seminars.


So as Antibalas brings down the house on Broadway, Perna knows what it takes to build homes for a new Haiti.


Hope for Haiti airs on various networks Friday, January 22, 2010


See Fela! at the Eugene O’Neil Theater in New York until June 20, 2010


Antibalas, featured on the new Daptone Gold collection, will be touring Australia and New Zealand in March