Haitian roots musician Alegba Jahyile stumbled on something special this spring. He went out to Prospect Park with his guitar one day in April, picked a spot on the brick patio between the Boathouse and the Lullwater and started to play. He came back the next day, and the following day, and the day after that…
By mid-May he had a band—bassist Lamarre Junior and Mark Kraszewski, a classically trained jazz saxophonist who has learned to complement Alegba’s style by playing with him and his crew of Haitian musicians for the past year. Word got around quickly, and a crowd, mostly young families, started to show up every night to watch. A rotating cast of players—singers, rappers, keyboardists, drummers, more drummers—quickly joined in on the fun. The group was dubbed Alegba and Friends, a title which represents both the haste in which it was formed and the fluidity of its membership, and its sound, on any given night.
As spring turned to summer, the shows became a nightly staple for those in the know. A younger, largely Caribbean crowd from across the park now showed up every night, using the event as a social hub. Many in the audience had lost their jobs to COVID-19, and those with entrepreneurial spirits began hawking their wares—from handmade masks to snacks and beverages—during the show. People were outside. Cash changed hands. An ecosystem developed.
I get to the boathouse an hour before the band intends to hit. Alegba is putting up posters featuring photos of himself against a glowing orange backdrop. “Next year, I will have them up there,” he tells me, pointing to a flagpole which currently sports two banners advertising the park itself. “I’m starting to figure out how capitalism works. It has to be right in your face.”
When Mark arrives late to our interview, he’s ruffled, having lugged his gear from the S shuttle through the park. He and Alegba immediately launch into a brief argument, the kind you get in when you’re together seven nights a week, playing for tips. The spat is quickly forgotten, a blip in what otherwise seems to be a functional working relationship. But when I start recording, there’s still a bit of tension in the air.
Bedford + Bowery: How did you two meet?
Mark Kraszewski: I remember. I don’t know if you do.
Alegba Jahyile: I don’t know, you tell me.
MK: I was at Bar Chord one time, where Alegba had a monthly residency for how long?
AJ: Since they opened.
MK: And how long was that?
AJ: Seven years.
What brought you together?
AJ: You know what? I just needed a sax player. He was available.
AJ: If it wasn’t him, it would’ve been somebody else. He has his own way. He makes things work, so we work together.
Where were you playing before the pandemic?
AJ: In the late ‘90s, I was doing the top-notch clubs in Manhattan—SOB’s, Casablanca, Lion’s Den. Then in 1998, I went to Europe with a dance group. I was the so-called musical director. We went to Germany, Spain, Belgium, France, Italy, and there was an attraction to the music I made. I met two guys over there who wanted to record me, but I didn’t do it. I came back to New York, met a woman, had a kid. And I had to make the decision, be a dad or be a musician. I chose to be a dad. So I gave up the feeling of being in Europe and raised my kid. My son is 20 now. I’ve been living in Brooklyn since then, same neighborhood, Ditmas Park.
MK: When I came here, I was playing a lot with this really straight-ahead jazz quartet for like two years. I met Alegba last summer, and I’ve been playing with him a lot since then.
You each clearly have very different musical backgrounds. How did both of you get to where you’re at stylistically today?
AJ: I love jazz. All my life, my family was listening to jazz. And I grew up in a country where the drum is essential to what we do. We’re always banging on it. The drum is the centerpiece of my music. It came to the island of Haiti from Africa with all its dialect. For some reason, we preserved that in Haiti. I’ll be singing words and I don’t even know what they mean. That’s the dialect that’s passed on through the generations. The music I’m recording has a jazz feeling to it, but the main point of my music is Vodou. We call it Vodou, but I don’t want to scare anybody with the way Hollywood portrays Vodou, the way white people portray Vodou. Therefore, it’s roots music.
When you came here, did you adopt any new styles to complement what you already knew?
AJ: No, because jazz is playing Vodou music. They may not understand what they’re doing, but it’s extremely Vodou music. There’s an extreme link between Haiti and New Orleans. All the music from the [Mississippi] delta is linked to the soul of Haiti. It’s a revolutionary music. It’s a music that links to your daily struggle.
Mark, you came from a pretty conventional jazz/classical background?
MK: Exactly. I’ve always played a lot of jazz and classical music, ever since I was in fifth grade.
Actually my first instrument that I started playing in third grade was guitar, and then I added saxophone in fourth grade and clarinet in fifth grade. I added flute when I was like 25, which I probably shouldn’t be broadcasting in New York City. But frankly, I got my flute chops up pretty good.
Y’all play everything from the Vodou music Alegba grew up with to jazz standards to bossa nova to modern R&B. What would you say is your sweet spot in the band’s expansive repertoire?
MK: It’s hard to say now. I’ve been getting so into the Haitian style, playing with mostly Haitian musicians for a year and a half. I feel really comfortable playing it all. But I guess the straight-ahead jazz and some of the funk crossover stuff would be my sweet spot, if I had to pick one.
AJ: I want you to know I’m not a jazz player. Where do people play jazz, do you know?
Everywhere. Nowhere. I don’t know.
AJ: Let’s not fool around. Jazz gets into people’s mind—Coca Cola, Dizzy Gillespie, the Blue Note, The Village Vanguard. If you’re a jazz player, get your ass a gig there. Then I will call you a jazz player! Otherwise, what the rest of you are doing, fucking masturbating to jazz. They all think they’re super-educated. No! All the jazz stuff I play, you don’t hear me swing it. It’s a fusion. I’m putting Haitian rhythm—African rhythm—under any jazz melody. I add a little spice to the music. My music is not for people to sit. My music is for people to move, dance. That’s how I see it.
There’s a movement to get rid of the word jazz entirely, since it’s a reductive umbrella term applied by white academics to a million different kinds of Black music.
AJ: I love that. You want to know something? The word “jazz,” in my country, what do you think that is? It’s not a genre of music. It’s a band, any band. “Oh, there’s a jazz here!” In the early 1900s, there was an American big band that went to Haiti, and they heard the word jazz: “Oh, jazz gonna be playing!”
Who are some of your favorite players? Who have you tried to emulate at different points in your careers?
AJ: I love Dizzy Gillespie. I love John Coltrane, just to listen to. I’m a jazz guy. I love Wayne Shorter. I listen to all those guys.
Anyone from Haiti?
AJ: Oh, yes. There are a lot of Haitian artists I love. Martha Jean-Claude was Haitian. She lived in Cuba since the ‘40s, but that’s OK. She’s our Nina Simone—no, Ella Fitzgerald. But she left and went to Cuba. The Cubans claim her.
How do Haitians feel about that?
We feel good about it, because when she left, she was running for her life. There was a dictator in Haiti who she spoke out against, and Cuba welcomed her.
Amos Coulange. He’s still alive in France. He’s a classical guitar player. I learned a lot from those guys.
How about you, Mark?
MK: Well, John Coltrane is obviously one of my very favorite players. But also George Coleman. There are bands I like a lot too, common stuff I grew up on—Radiohead, U2, R.E.M., Nirvana. The first band I ever actually played in was when I was in eighth grade, outside of school, and I played guitar.
AJ: Eighth grade, that’s amazing!
A big reason y’all can keep doing what you do here is that you’ve built up a big crowd and the show has become a known nightly event. Why do you think it’s blown up the way it has?
AJ: It’s all about the moment. This is a terrible moment for the world and a terrible moment for New York. I came here in the toughest week of the pandemic. I couldn’t listen to Cuomo or de Blasio talking, Yap-yap-yap-yap-yap-yap. I ran away from the TV, came here and sang. And New Yorkers were starving for live music. The act in itself took a big hit. Every place shut down. Nobody wants to go to a bar or restaurant to play. Would I be comfortable going inside? No! But when I came here, it was heaven to me. This is where my kid grew up. It was a natural thing for me to be here.
Then people started coming. Then they started giving me dollar, dollar dollar, dollar. First time I made $67. Second time, $130. Then I called a guy to come play bass with me, Lamar. Then I called this guy. [Points to Mark] It took on a life of its own, and it got bigger and bigger. One thing I’ve heard throughout the five months: “Thank you for saving my summer.” I said, “How did I do that?” “I could have been trapped in my building. I could have gone crazy!” I came here to provide some joy, to have some fun, to keep my sanity in check.
It’s also done something that’s amazing to me: Trickle. Down. Economy. Dude! Out of nowhere. A dude will come here with his bottle of water, sell it. A woman selling over there… I don’t really pay attention to that. I’m walking down Flatbush, the same woman came up to me: “I just want to say thank you to you.” “For what?” “I am feeding my kids for the past three months. God bless you!” I have no idea who she is, but that’s what happens here. Every ethnicity comes here. My first two months were the best because it was all toddlers—two, three years old—and mom and dad dancing with them, before the rowdy crowd started coming.
It seems like there’s a pretty solid Haitian crew that’s here every night. Have they all been here from the beginning?
AJ: No, they came later. And the thing about it is, that crowd is from 15 minutes away from here, on the other side of the park, by Parkside [Avenue]. They didn’t know we were here! I’m glad, though, because otherwise it would have been chaotic. They come to party, they come to drink. “OK, you drink. But you act foolish? Then I will have to come and clean after you,” and I’ve been doing it a lot lately. So I don’t enjoy it. My community came here and put me into hell. If I didn’t put my foot down, it would have been done by now.
But they still come here, and things seem pretty peaceful.
AJ: Of course! They have to come! It’s live entertainment! I’m not here to kick anyone out. I don’t want them to get out. But I need my respect, and I impose that on everyone. It’s got to be positive. You come here to fight, I don’t expect that. No nonsense.
MK: I’d also say that Alegba had a really good concept of building something up at a good time when there was a good market for it. And he obviously had a good sense of location.
Do you like the acoustics here?
MK: They’re not bad for outside. And it’s very aesthetically pleasing. That definitely brings people out. We get some slap-back off of that. [Points to boathouse wall] If we didn’t have that, our sound would be dead, so that helps. And also the surface we’re on, the bricks. To be honest, the acoustics aren’t ideal. And it’s tricky because we’re using amplification. When Russell’s doing sound, it’s better because we have monitors. Last night there was a problem with one of the antennas.
There was a lot of feedback, I noticed.
MK: Mostly it just kept cutting out. I was joking about it with the drummer, how every time we were building up to something it would cut out. And then, at the end of the night, Alegba goes to give his final speech, and he’s like “Thanks so much, everyone. Have a good—” Boop.
Obviously, y’all rely on tips to pay out your musicians and make it possible to keep this a nightly gig. Do you think people are more likely now to pay to see “free” live music than they were before the pandemic?
AJ: Man, who doesn’t like free music?
It’s become a whole issue with live streaming, and with free outdoor shows like yours, where musicians are saying, “You should be tipping as much as you’d be paying for a show pre-COVID,” or even that plus the cost of a drink. But people also have less money now, so it’s a tough situation.
MK: Yeah, we don’t have that mentality.
AJ: I’m just happy you come here and clap.
MK: And that we’re able to play music for people!
AJ: Exactly! Imagine if you give me a dollar—
MK: All the time, people are like, “I’m sorry, I only have a dollar.” And it’s like, “Right. Apologize for giving me a dollar.”[Both laugh]
What are your plans moving forward? How long do you expect to stay out here?
AJ: Being out here has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with the people who keep us here. My phone is calling all the time. I have three dance groups that want us to do a costume party for Halloween. We checked the weather for October, and we have a good two weeks at least before it gets too cold.
MK: We started officially doing this nightly on May 15, and we’ll definitely go to October 15, no question. I think we can go till the end of October. And maybe after that, we’ll do weekends. It all depends on the weather. If it’s 45 degrees, we’re not gonna be playing out here. If it’s 55, we might come out for an hour.
AJ: Or two!