When Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Jephté Guillaume recorded Priyè-a (The Prayer) back in 1997, the apparently oxymoronic term "acoustic house" hadn't yet been created to describe the remarkable fusion of folk, world beat and deep house contained in the single.
Working from intuition and desire, he and esteemed spiritual house producer Joe Claussell crafted a unique warm vibe miles away from the sample-based, filtered disco loop sound popular for most of the 90s.
The song blew up bigger than anyone could have guessed and ended up being integrated into Derrick Carter's Cosmic Disco DJ mix and becoming the anthem of the day at Claussell's legendary Sunday afternoon residency, Body And Soul.
"It's not the DJs who inspired me, it was the dancers," explains Guillaume from a noisy Brooklyn restaurant. "I love dancing myself, and when I go to clubs I see what makes people move. That's how I thought of doing this Vodun house sound: I'd be in the club and they'd be playing Fela Kuti or someone else singing in a different language, but the crowd would still be dancing. I realized that if the crowd feels the music, it doesn't matter. So I could sing in Creole and use Vodun rhythms, and they will accept it."
Guillaume had already built up a reputation as a founding member of Haitian roots rock band Rara Machine; a sought-after session musician, he's also played with everyone from Mary J. Blige to Sting. But it's been his experiments fusing Vodun (voodoo) spirituality and rhythms with the primal thump of New York house music that have defined him as an artist.
"Spirituality" is a word with fairly heavy connotations, and unless you're a true believer it's hard to see how it can be incorporated into house music. On the other hand, music and dance have long been used in ritual, so it should follow that contemporary dance music is also connected to that tradition.
"Dance is very powerful. The other day I was in the studio from 10 pm to 4 am and then I went out to the Shelter, and I danced until noon the next day, when Timmy (Regisford) finished. Right after that I had a recording session at 2 pm, but I had so much energy just from the music, I couldn't sleep anyway.
"When you're dancing, you don't think about the time."
Between running his own label (Tet Kale), composing and performing his music, doing session work and producing remixes, he's somehow found time to begin his DJ career. An avid record collector, he spins everything from deep house to traditional Vodun rhythms to Afrobeat.
"I have to do everything, I have to play all kinds of music. I feel all different types, whether it's playing in a Haitian group or singing R&B or rock. I think the Haitian influence is what makes me different, and that's where I get a lot of my inspiration, but I also use what I got from here, too. I've been exposed to the melting pot. You have everything -- Brazilians, Haitians, Jamaicans. It's easy to get a feeling for all types of music."