HPN - 1979
By rights you shouldn't be reading this review. And the few remaining copies of Henri-Pierre Noel's Piano should be in their rightful place, languishing as it were in the dusty corners of some Montreal thrift shops.
But as Alexis Charpentier explained in a recent TED talk, it was thanks to the diligent cratedigging of a local obsessive named DJ Kobal that the charms of Piano were made available to the world at large. "Kobal was doing his weekly rounds of just hunting for records," he explained. "He was in a flea market surrounded by thousands of other dirty, dusty, moldy records. That's where he found the Piano album." Like all diggers worthy of the name, Kobal took out his trusty portable record player and gave the thing a listen. He was intrigued by the fact that a Haitian had made a record in Quebec in the late seventies. And as if to add to the mythology, Charpentier says, "He wasn't specifically looking for [Piano]...actually, you could say it sort of found him."
The origins of Piano were in a way equally fortuitous. Noel had actually lived in the USA and Belgium before he arrived in Quebec for what was supposed to be just a couple of weeks. He ended up staying some forty years. Though he had never had the chance to record before his arrival in Quebec, he was keen to show his adopted country the music of his homeland. So he took the island compas music of his childhood and melded it with the jazz and funk sounds that he had no doubt picked up along the way. "My goal was to immortalize some traditional folkloric songs of Haiti," he would later tell the Thought on Tracks blog. "To me, they deserved to be known. I would like the future generations to recognize them. If that happens, my mission will be accomplished."
Still, it's a wonder that these gorgeous compas-jazz sounds managed to avoid getting chucked onto history's trash heap. When Kobal pulled out the record at that Montreal flea market, he found Noel's twenty-five-year-old business card tucked inside the sleeve. He called the number, but after all those years it was no longer in service. Somehow, through an old contact in Belgium who was still in touch with Noel, Kobal tracked down the aging musician. Equally amazing is the fact that Noel still had the master tapes...which of course led to the British label Wah Wah 45s' well-received reissue of Piano in 2012 (along with its funkier follow-up One More Step two years later).
For Noel it was essentially a new lease on life. "This changed everything for me," he told Charpentier. "I went from planning my retirement to playing on the BBC radio in London, and on Radio-Canada and more."
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