Wyclef Jean, highlights of Haitian culture to appear at New Orleans jazz fest

NEW ORLEANS — Wyclef Jean, Cyndi Lauper, John Mellencamp, Lauryn Hill and Fantasia will make first-time appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, joining a lineup of familiar acts for the 43rd annual tradition that opens Friday at a race track in this Mississippi River city.

“This is one of our broadest years, musically speaking,” said Quint Davis, producer of the festival that will run seven days, over the course of two weekends at the Fair Grounds Race Course. “We’ve got important people coming from all ends of the spectrum and for some of them they’re all new to jazz fest.”

Along with fresh faces, Davis said some of the festival’s perennial favorites will return to perform on the 12 stages set up around the track.

“Jimmy Buffett, the Nevilles, Jeff Beck, Irma Thomas, Bon Jovi, these are some of our favorite people and they’ll be back,” Davis said. “Gregg Allman returns, but this year he’ll be a different version of himself. He’s coming with his blues band, a new project of his.”

Last year, musicians from the Dominican Republic, Martinique and Senegal performed at the festival. This year, the spotlight is on Haiti, still recovering from its deadly January 2010 earthquake. In addition to performances by Jean, a Goodwill Ambassador to his homeland, fans can experience Haitian rhythms from parading Rara bands, Konpa big-band dance music, traditional drumming and popular contemporary bands including Tabou Combo, Ram, Boukman Eksperyans and Emeline Michel.

There also will be Haitian master artisans demonstrating their craft in the Haiti Pavilion, as well as food demonstrations and panel discussions on the historical and cultural connections between Haiti and New Orleans.

“We have put together the largest Haitian culture exposition in the United States since the earthquake,” Davis said. “We said, ‘Let’s remind the world about Haiti. Let’s show the world that country’s culture, art and music and remind them about the indomitable spirit of those who live there.”

Davis said the response to this year’s lineup has been “positively overwhelming.”

“I think there’s something that everybody likes and that seems to be the direction we’re moving in. There are people from all around here who we’ve heard from who’ve never been to the festival before but are going now. We feel that the fest belongs to everybody and our mission has been to broaden the music to make everyone believe that the festival is for them.”

Though the festival draws plenty of national talent, Davis notes 80 percent of the performers are based locally.

“For a lot of years, the festival was all local, mostly unknown acts. When we started having guests, we were pairing them with local artists and now the (locals) have become known. We have example after example — Trombone Shorty and the Strokes, Allen Toussaint and Jimmy Buffett, Irvin Mayfield and Sonny Rollins.”

The festival also looks to spotlight different cultures that are in some way linked to New Orleans.

Last year, the festival brought in some of the biggest Latin headliners and saw the largest turnout of Hispanics when Juan Luis Guerra and his group performed. This year, he said fans of Alejandro Sanz will see him perform. “This man fills stadiums in Spain and the Dominican Republic. We wanted to maintain that connection with that community,” he said.

And what would the jazz festival be without the food?

Kajun Kettle Foods creates one of the biggest festival draws outside the music — Crawfish Monica.

“We’ve had great fun with this dish for 27 years,” said company spokesman Pierre Hilzim. “It’s just really good comfort food with a flavor profile that makes you want to eat more and more.”

Also returning will be alligator pies, fried green tomatoes, crawfish and shrimp, jambalaya, po-boys, gumbo, boudin and other foods that feed the soul.

Juan Johnson, of Papa Ninety Catering, said this will be the seventh year they’re bringing boudin, crawfish remoulade and creole hot tamales to the crowds.

“It’s just a real fun time,” he said. “There are great crowds — rain or shine — and it’s always fun explaining to tourists what boudin is.”