Singer, songwriter – Born in 1948, Charlemagne grew up in the sprawling new suburb of Carrefour, to the south of the capital, where he was influenced as much by the songs of the peasants who moved into the area in search of a livelihood, as by his Catholic school choir. In the 1970s, he was part of the kilti libete or freedom culture movement that promoted popular culture, including acoustic, folk music. Charlemagne’s writing drew on the twoubadou tradition, a guitar-based music that can trace its roots back both to the rural songs of the Haitian peasantry and to the Cuban influences brought back to Haiti by returning migrant sugar cane cutters in the early decades of the twentieth century.
The Jean-Claude Duvalier regime renewed the repression of political and cultural dissent in 1980, and Charlemagne was forced into exile. With the fall of the Duvaliers in 1986, he returned home, and was active in both political organising and the burgeoning roots or racines music scene. He formed a live group, Koral Konbit Kafou, which included drummers from a Vodou temple, and played concerts that provided a soundtrack for the popular mobilisation for political change in the late 1980s. Some of these songs can be heard on “Nou Nan Male ak Oganizasyon Mondyal”, Kako Productions, 1988.
His support for the grassroots, popular movement frequently landed him in trouble with the Haitian military, and, after receiving death threats, he spent several years in semi-clandestinity. Charlemagne was a supporter of the Lavalas political movement of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide against who the military launched a brutal coup d’etat in September 1991. Charlemagne took refuge in the Argentine embassy from where he went into exile once again. During 1991-94, he played concerts in Miami, New York, and Montreal, where he rallied the expatriate Haitian communities in support of Haitian democracy. He released a recording, “La Fimen”, Kako Productions, in 1994.
Following the United Nations intervention to restore the constitutional government in September 1994, Charlemagne returned to Haiti. In June 1995 he was elected mayor of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, defeating the incumbent, Evans Paul, but his term of office, which expired in early 1999, was beset with difficulties and controversy, and is not regarded as a success. His administrative responsibilities overshadowed his musical career, and one of his few public performances in recent years was with the Haitian-American rap group, The Fugees, in Port-au-Prince in April 1997.
Recommended reading: A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti by Gage Averill, University of Chicago Press, 1997.