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Remembering Issa

Over the years I purchased several paintings from him (Issa) but I will never forget my first.  He knew I did not have a lot of money and priced the painting accordingly.  Each year, I would return to Haiti and buy another painting.  As my earnings increased so did the price of the paintings!  But somehow he always seemed to know what I could afford and was more interested in nurturing my interest in the art rather than making a large profit.

I will always cherish my paintings and I never look at them without thinking of Issa.  He was a unique and free spirit that I will remember well.

Thanks for posting your tribute to him.

Lisa Burke, New York.


Issa El Saieh by Mats Lundahl and Bebo Valdes

 The legendary orchestra leader and gallery owner Issa El Saieh has passed away in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, at the age of 85. He leaves his two children Manno and Babette and three grandchildren.


The family of Issa El Saieh originally came from Bethlehem. It had arrived in Haiti via New York some time at the beginning of the twentieth century, and its members dedicated themselves to business, with great success. Issa’s half brother Élias Noustas founded the first department store in Haiti: La Belle Créole.


Issa became a legend in his own life time, in two ways. During the 1940s and 1950s he had a big band that created a new school in Haitian music, The band played a mixture of Haitian music, jazz and Afro-Cuban, and cut a number of records on Issa’s own label, named La Belle Créole as well. Issa had been to school in the United States, and later he would take music lessons in New York from Eddie Barefield, Walter ‘Foots’ Thomas, Andy Brown and Budd Johnson. He played tenor sax and clarinet but never took any solos. Issa was more of an organizer and an arranger who would regularly bring such great musicians as Budd Johnson and Billy Taylor to play with the band. The orchestra became a nursery for musicians and singers who would eventually be among the most well-known in Haiti, like the alto sax Raoul Guillaume, the singers Guy Durosier and Joe Trouillot, and the drummer Ti Marcel, who compared with Ti Roro, known for his cooperation with Katherine Dunham. (He also played with the band from time to time.)


During the 1950s Issa also opened his art gallery, without the shadow of a doubt the most famous one in the country, described in all guide books. He was a unique talent spotter who discovered and hired a large number of the great Haitian naïves: Jacques Enguérrand Gourgue, André Pierre, André Normil, Jacques Chéry, Seymour Bottex, Alexandre Grégoire and dozens of others. His prices were always reasonable, he never dickered, that was for tourists, and he always left you time to pay, if necessary. His own collection of Haitian art is the best one in the world.


For some years around 1960 Issa also manged the Grand Hôtel Oloffson. There he met Graham Greene, and sure enough he is to be found in The Comedians, as Hamit, the ‘Syrian’, who is murdered and who knew ‘as many intimate things as a prostitute’s dog’. Issa had himself experienced Papa Doc’s regime of fear when in the mid-sixties he was thrown into the notorious Fort Dimanche. It was a total of one month in different jails for some made-up crime before he was back out again.


The Galerie Issa for may years was a gathering place in Port-au-Prince. Issa rarely left his house. He did not have to, because people came to him instead. It was always fun, and you could be certain that something happened  and that you always met someone; artists, journalists, some minister and more or less corny tourists who could never quite figure out whether what Issa told them was serious or not. It was like a day at the race track with the Marx brothers.


Issa’s last years were darkened by Alzheimer and a weakening memory, but the illness never managed to grip him completely. He was a formidable institution, personally completely without pretension, full of stories, and he knew everybody. One of us met Issa for the first time at the beginning of the 1940s, the other one in 1969. Now, he is gone. An epoch has come to an end. It will never be as much fun again to go to Haiti in the future.  


Mats Lundahl is a professor of Economics at the Stockholm School of Economics whose books are published internationally; Bebo Valdés is the legendary Cuban Jazz pianist who has lived in Sweden since 1960. Both were lifelong friends of Issa. The above remembrance appeared in the Swedish Newspapers, Dagens Nyheter on 12 February 2005 and Svenska Dagbladet on 14 March 2005



I was introduced to Issa by the sort of collector who stayed at the Oloffson and was hesitant to venture much further. There was hardly a need. His enormous stock, connoisseurship, fair dealing, and bon-hommie made for a complete experience.

My favorite memory of Issa is asking about a certain painting and hearing him start the sales process with a big, welcoming smile and "Oh, you have a VERY good eye!" I didn't see him often enough that he would remember using that line on me, so I heard it on most visits. Sometimes, to prepare me for a high price, he used a variant: “Oh, you must have had a VERY good year!" So he had me: either buy the painting, or admit a lousy year!

  Every time, he was a complete delight. I don't collect the kinds of things he sold, but always went to learn what I could, to see what he was promoting and, in more recent years, just to visit him - the way even frequent visitors to Paris feel compelled always to see the Eiffel Tower.

John Black, Washington DC.

There is much to be said about this outstanding dealer who was so much more
than simply a buyer and seller and collector of paintings. My few words:

Issa is an irreplaceable set of threads in the fabric of the history of Haitian art. He immeasurably enriched and informed his many visitors with his knowledge, his wisdom and his wit.

I went to Haiti seeking to learn about this art that was so different from anything I had ever studied. A conversation with Issa the first week I was there helped me to begin to commence to start to try to see and comprehend. He knew I was not there to buy, yet he was as generous with his time and explanations as if I had been there to purchase one of the great, costly treasures of the masters. His knowledge informed much of what I was able to write in the first article I ever wrote on Haitian art and when I visited him again, he patiently set me straight on some things I’d missed.

Always hospitable, he arranged for me to photograph works and to visit
several artists in the studio spaces he provided for them. I smile to remember his shoes: an artist had decorated his sneakers with high-spirited florals. That was distinctly Issa, and as distinctively Haitian as the tap-taps with their floral and geometric enframed Bible verses. Each time I would go to Haiti I would pay a call to Issa, and each time I came away knowing more than I had before. I wish I had seen him many more times. I wish, oh! how I wish there were many more times to come.

From Legrace Benson <legrace@twcny.rr.com>

All who knew Issa mourn our loss. Issa was not only the icon of Haitian art and perhaps the first “roots” Haitian musician, but a renaissance Haitian, known and appreciated in many countries, sophisticated, charming, cultured and yet always deeply connected to the strong, emotive, deep rhythms, songs and humour of his beloved Haiti cheri.  He was one of the now disappearing generation of “anciens haitiens.”, the best of Haiti. In his galerie over delicious, thick Haitian coffee or lunch he held court leading discussions about music, art, and, of course, politics. No one who visited Issa left without receiving something – a joke, sympathy, help solving a problem, knowledge about Haiti and its art and music or politics, if not a wonderful painting or iron sculpture. 

Issa was a Haitian saint. He helped hundreds if not thousands in need whether they were artists, people from his neighbourhood or just friends. His generosity was legend, as large as his warm heart. His contribution to Haitian art and music was staggering.

For me, a blan, Issa was more than a lifelong friend; he was a brother, an uncle. I met Issa in London in the swinging 60’s where he was promoting and selling Haitian art and visiting his tailor to get one of his spiffy suits. We became instant friends and laughed and shared joy and grief together during my long stay inHaiti. He taught me about Haiti and about myself.

When I left Haiti in 2000, heartbroken to leave a county I love and heartbroken to see it still descending deeper into chaos, violence and misery, I thought that I would always be able to return to see and enjoy Issa again. My terrible loss, Haiti’s loss. .

Paul Paryski
Santa Fe,New Mexico
February 2005

All the best to Issa's family and dear friends.

Eric Behrens<behrens01@insightbb.com>

Issa was one of the first people I met in Haiti, when I came as a student 14 years ago.
On the first day I came, a drummer - Ti Ro Ro - was there to bat tambou, and I made a recording. The next time I visited, the artist Gesner Armand was in the house. Another time, Issa sent me with a friend and a bottle of rum to meet Andre Pierre. It seemed that each time I visited Issa, he would introduce me to someone new. I didn't know Issa well, but he made such a great impression on me. He, and the people I met through him, gave me a thrilling introduction to Haiti--and I will remember him with gratitude.

Katie Orenstein.

From Caribbean Life, February 22, 2005


Issa El Saieh, a “giant of Haitian music” passes By Georges Boussous, Jr.  bgeorges@bucmail.barry.edu


The people of Haiti are mourning the death of one of the island’s greatest musicians, Issa El Saieh was 85 years old when he died of a tumor the oesophageous at the Hospital of Canape Vert in Port-au-Prince, the Haiatian capital.


 In August 1928, he traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to further his education, where he studied English and

Literature.  At the age of 20 he returned to Haiti where he worked in his parents’ business. However, music was the matter of his soul’ therefore, he went on to play in his first musical band called Jazz Rouzier.


A couple of years later, he formed his own band which bore his name, Orchestre Issa El Saieh.  It was one of the island’s greatest bands ever.  Indeed, “one of the best musical groups in Latin America during the 40s and 50s,” according to Bebo Valdes (H-O, 9-16, 2/2005, pp.21).


Issa worked with a number of great and well-known musicians, including the famous Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, who became one of his closest friends.  Among other musicians who used to work with him as arrangers, included Billy Taylor, Budd Johnson, BobbyHicks, and one of Haiti’s greatest singers of all time, Guy Durosier.  Durosier joined the band when he was 17 years of age.


Issa continued his musical journey in New York where he became acquainted with Jazz musicians and singers

like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lena Horne.  His music professors included Walter “Foots” Thomas, Albert “Budd” Johnson, Eddie Barefield, and Andrew “Andy” Brown.  Their  contribution to his band created the same structure of the American big bands of that time.


Issa is survived by his son Jean Emmanuel and his daughter Elisabeth.

In his honor, I wrote a poem titled “The Loss of an Emblem” using his first name—Issa.


The Loss of an Emblem


In the midst of my grief “Odan” and “Makaya” remain the songs of my heart.


I shall sing to assuage the pain of your loving spirit that shouldn’t depart

I sigh, I shout, and I cry, but songs like “Wongol” I shall sing till dawn

For your lovely rhythms of your lively melodies shall never be gone

Souvenir of our land’s past glory shall keep you safe, sound, and warm

Wonders of its spirit and colors of its soul shall protect you from harm

The gentleness of your heart was shown through your succulent songs

Which were the essence of what we’ve represented among all nations

Sounds from your sax rhymed with the lost beauty of our beloved motherland

A land that you loved and cherished till you left and we can’t ever apprehend

A lost that cannot be replaced, but a name that shall live for centuries to come

Within us your presence will reside and our minds shall be your restful home.


Awfully, painfully and awkwardly I embrace myself to say goodbye

To you Issa, an emblem in the musical sphere of a nation that lost an eye

The lost pearl of the Caribbean that is on the verge of a musical bankruptcy

I pray for our soil to give birth to more like you who shall reign like the papacy.

To add a remembrance of Issa, email me.

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