Stories » Voodoo ceremonies and cross-cultural jams: Inside Jackson Browne's all-star Haiti benefit LP / RollingStone

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Voodoo ceremonies and cross-cultural jams: Inside Jackson Browne's all-star Haiti benefit LP / RollingStone

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With help from Jenny Lewis, a member of the Head and the Heart, and others, the singer-songwriter forged new musical alliances, documented on ‘Let the Rhythm Lead.'

Over the decades, Browne has found himself in some unusual situations linked to his music: singing in a jail cell after being arrested while protesting the opening of a nuclear power plant, or recording an album (Running on Empty) on tour buses and in hotel rooms. To that list, Browne can now add witnessing a voodoo ceremony in Haiti.

"People would go into this kind of trance," the singer-songwriter recalls of one evening in that country, during the making of his latest project. "Then they began to hurl themselves backwards into the crowd, and the crowd helped them up and then pushed them back into the center, and they kept dancing. It's this rhythm- and music-induced state, a high."

That memorable night stemmed from one of the most ambitious projects of Browne's career. During two separate trips to Haiti in 2016, he gathered together a musically and ethnically diverse group of collaborators: American musicians (Jenny Lewis, singer and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson, Head and the Heart singer-songwriter Jonathan Russell), members of the Haitian roots band Lakou Mizik, Haitian singer-songwriter Paul Beaubrun, and international talents like Mali-based singer and musician Habib Koité and Spanish flamenco guitarist Raúl Rodríguez. In various combinations, the artists wrote and recorded songs that blended all their musical backgrounds, swapping lead vocals and sometimes instruments, and singing in English, Creole, Khassonké (the language of western Mali), Manding (of West Africa), and Spanish.

Next week, the results of those sessions - a sort of multi-culti version of the Traveling Wilburys - will finally be released on a new benefit album, Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1.  "It was the most excited I'd seen Jackson in the six or seven years I've known him," says Wilson, who sang and played various instruments and also co-produced the record with Browne. "Every aspect of the project was important to him, from the person singing the song to the person who played the shaker. He would go through songs with folks and scribble down the words and go through it. He was extremely focused."  PHOTO: David Belle