Slow Machete

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About a year before the earthquake that devastated Haiti, Joseph Shaffer went to the country to visit a friend who was living at an orphanage in Cap Haitïen. During that first trip, he fell in love with the music of Haiti. He started recording. “I took binaural mics down the next time I visited, and every time since for four years. The binaural mics, earbud mics, allow you to record unobtrusively and pick up nice field sounds for soundscapes.”

After four years, the Pittsburgh native had piles of half-takes and practice session recordings. “Most of the outtakes occurred when I asked them to perform again, but they wouldn’t convey the same emotional vibe as in the outtake. So you’d have a ‘moment’ in a song that was very powerful, emotionally evoking, and the song would cut short. During the re-take she’d be shy, or they’d start in a different key, or someone else would take that part. So you’re left with 10 seconds that are beautiful but too short to release as a choir song.”

He began mixing the recordings with accordions, downtempo beats, and rhythms. What started as a side project turned into something much more meaningful. He went to Costa Rica and Uruguay in 2011 to tie everything together, and the result is the project that he calls Slow Machete. The name comes from the pitched down machete samples used to build percussion. After the song is complete, Shaffer adds some of his own voice in. “I always write and sing parts last. I try to write as long of a song as possible then cut that back to one or two verses that have the most potency—sometimes one or two sentences if possible.”