In this twelfth episode of Play It Back, Benjamin de Menil helps usher in the warm season by telling us about his earliest music memory of hearing “Yellow Bird” played by a steel drum band in Jamaica. The experience was a formative one, kindling a raging love affair with Caribbean arts that would lead to his eventual career as a label owner, producer, and academy founder specializing in bachata, popular traditional music of the Dominican Republic.
Benjamin de Menil is a producer of bachata, traditional Dominican music of the barrios that has become a popular cultural export of the Caribbean island. After earning his BA in Computer Science from Brown University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, he founded his music production company iASO Records in 2001. Since then, he has drawn global attention to the Dominican Republic’s vibrant music scene by organizing hundreds of concerts in North America and Europe, and producing widely circulated recordings, compilations, and videos that have received praise from The New York Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, NPR Music’s alt.latino, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post.
In partnership with The DREAM Project, Benjamin has established the iASO Bachata Academy on the DREAM campus in Cabarete, in the DR. The program is the first in the world to focus on bachata, and has the mission of fostering musical excellence and passion among a new generation of bachateros and bachateras.
He is currently working on a documentary film appropriately titled Bachata! The Movie, about the Bachata Academy, a meeting place of teachers, children, artists, and dreamers; all united by a devotion to music as a way of life. The film will follow a constellation of characters orbiting The Bachata Academy, such as a group of Dominican children pursuing their dream of becoming true bachateros. As their fantasies and realities mingle in a story of struggle and salvation through music, the audience will discover the tradition of bachata, its history of perseverance through preojudices, its methods of instruction, and its outlook for survival in a world that is rapidly modernizing.
Five Extra Tidbits Concerning Count Frank’s “Yellow Bird” Other Versions
- A $50 tax deductible donation to Bachata Academy will purchase a guitar for a music student to use in class and at home so they can learn to do THIS, and THIS, and… What are you waiting for?!
- Now that he’s not three years old anymore, Ben’s tracked down many a recording of his beloved song “Yellow Bird.” But even in this time of infinitesimal digital choice, Ben’s favorite remains the version sung Frank Anderson, p.k.a. “Count Frank” on an album called Count Frank Sings Calypso, first pressed in Jamaica sometime in the 1960s. The track’s so rare that Ben had to convert it from his treasured vinyl LP so that we could give you a taste in this episode. Proof that, not everything will ever be on the Internet. Remember to support your local record stores and dig for musical gold offline and IRL!
- “Yellow Bird” is derived from “Choucoune,” nicknamed “Ti Zwezo” (French for “little bird”), a 19th Century song composed by New Orleans born, Haiti-raised Michel Mauléart Monton, the descendant of an American father and Haitian mother. The song was set to a poem by the same name about a woman with the same nickname, written in 1883 by Oswald Durand, the Haitian poet and politician who was likened to the Shakespeare or the Dante of his time and place.
- Here is the original Haitian Creole and English translation of the poem that started it all. As the story goes, a marabou (e.g. multiethnic) woman and Cap-Haitien restaurateur named Marie Noëlle Bélizaire a.k.a. Choucoune, first engaged in a romantic fling with the poet, then flew off to be with a Frenchman (nevermind Durand’s cheating ways!). Other sources will say that added inspiration for the poem was a bird that perched on the window of Durand’s cell in a gaol while he was imprisoned for political activism and criticism of Haitian leaders. Either way, the real life Choucoune would live in renown brought on by the resulting song for the rest of her days. However, she died a beggar with mental illness in 1924 at age 71, back in her birthplace of La-Plaine-du-Nord.
- The very first performance of the song “Choucoune” was on Sunday, May 14th, 1893, in Port-au-Prince. Then, the Norman Luboff Choir released the first English version “Choucoune: Yellow Bird” in 1957 as a part of its album Calypso Holiday, worded by Songwriters Hall of Fame-ers and multiple Oscar-winning songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, but with zero connection to Durand’s Haitian Creole poem. Since then, the number of both Creole and English versions and covers spouting from all around the world by professionals and amateurs alike is staggering. Why not take a twirl down the Choucoune/Yellow Bird hole yourself?
Is a tune from childhood now buzzing through your head like a mellow bee through the flowers of time? Tell us about the soundtrack to your life at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can subscribe to us on iTunes and SoundCloud to hear old, current, and upcoming content from musicians, creatives, and industry heavies sharing their personal stories about songs and pieces of music that are special to them. Your ratings and comments help us give us what you want, so say anything! Like us on Facebook and follow our Twitter feed, too. See you next time!