Global Ear: Port-au-Prince


Global Ear in Port-au-Prince, September 2000

Charles Arthur (This article first appeared in The Wire, Issue 199)

This month…. Port-au-Prince

When the Haitian-American rappers, The Fugees, played for free in front of over 80,000 people in downtown Port-au-Prince in early 1997, it was a seal of approval for Haitian rap’s new wave. African-American HipHop was already popular with the spoilt brat kids of Haiti’s millionaire elite families who live in rich ghettoes up in the mountains.

But, following the Fugees’ homecoming (Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel had left Haiti for the States when children), and especially when Jean released his solo album, The Carnival, featuring four songs sung in his native Haitian Creole language, the genre took on a new cool with the slum kids of Port-au-Prince.

As a result, a host of Creole-language rappers have become the new darlings of the Haitian music scene. Two of the most successful of these homemade Haitian rap groups are Masters of Haiti, and King Posse. Masters of Haiti’s newer material clearly shows the Fugees influence – their song ‘Ti Chans’ for example uses samples, refrains and socially conscious rhymes right of the Jean/Michel style book. King Posse, on the otherhand, are five young singers who are fusing Jamaican dancehall reggae with the presentational style of U.S. boy bands like the Backstreet Boys.

Although Haiti appears to be the least Americanised of the Caribbean island cultures, the presence in the U.S. and Canada of as many as two million Haitian-Americans – many of them now second and third generation – makes for an increasingly evident cultural crossover. Not only do Haitian-Americans come back to Haiti, especially at Carnival time and for the summer, but some Haitian musicians can now find the beginnings of a lucrative market for their music in the north.

Yet in spite of this development, outside the capital in villages and hamlets where most of the population lives, there is still next to no electricity, let alone the chance to hear the latest U.S. sounds. Here it is folk music, closely linked to celebration of the Vodou religion, that provides the entertainment. In Vodou temples, drumming and dancing are the meat and drink of the 16 hours plus sessions organised to honour the spirits who commune between humans and the supreme divinity. As a result of centuries of repression, first by French colonialists and then Christian missionaries, Vodou cermonies have traditionally taken place at night in off the beaten track temples. They still do. For day-time music and dance, the alternative is rara, the street music of the Haitian peasants and slum dwellers, the D-I-Y, stripped down, punk version of the Vodou-influenced ‘rasin’ (roots) music scene.

Rara is a traditional folk music unique to Haiti. In its purest form it is created by a group playing single-note trumpets of varying length that are fashioned from bamboo tubes. The players blow through a mouthpiece at one end while striking the side of the tube to enhance the rhythm. Each year, during the weeks of Lent – between the annual Shrove Tuesday Carnival and Easter Sunday – rara bands set off on foot, and lead wildly dancing crowds along country lanes and through the streets of Port-au-Prince’s sprawling slums. Increasingly rara can be experienced at other times, and some rasin bands are making it a more and more prominent part of their performances.

Arrive late on a Thursday evening at Port-au-Prince’s downtown Hotel Oloffson, and you’re likely to find a crowd cavorting through the gardens following behind a group of percussionists and one-note trumpet players. The rhythm is insistent, repetitive and hypnotic. The band is RAM, who made their UK debut last month at the Edinburgh festival.

RAM is lead by the amiable Richard Morse, who runs the legendary Hotel Oloffson in a laid-back style. Its long bar, overhead fans, and cool verandah inspired the author, Graham Greene, who used the Oloffson as the setting for much of his 1960s novel, The Comedians. Nowadays, the Greene connection brings in a few guests who, together with a steady trickle of foreign correspondents and danger-seekers, just about keep the hotel going. As for Morse, it seems like his heart is not really in the hotel business. In fact, the longer that you know him, the more it looks like his interest in it extends little further than the fact that it serves as a regular venue for his real passion – his Vodou-roots rock band.

Morse had grown up in the New York area – his father’s a U.S academic; his mother, a Haitian folk singer and dancer – and, when he arrived in Haiti in 1987, the rasin scene was already a few year old. Its leaders were middle class Haitian kids who, fed up with the inane and profane compas, a merengue-type Haitian pop, turned to Bob Marley, reggae, and Rastafarianism from neighbouring Jamaica for inspiration. They had got into Vodou, and especially into Vodou drumming, based on rhythms more or less unchanged in the two hundred and fifty years since hundreds of thousands of West African slaves had arrived in the then French colony. On this percussive base, rasin groups such as Foula, Kanpech, Boukan Ginen, Koudjay, and Boukman Eksperyans, laid Hendrix and Santana style guitar, and lyrics that both criticised the country’s military dictatorships, and praised Haitian peasant culture and beliefs. Morse, with his punk sensibility, added thrashed chords – some taken unashamedly from Clash songs – and increasingly cynical lyrics about Haitian politics.

For all his outside influences and worldy concerns, Morse constantly refers to the importance of Haiti’s much maligned and misunderstood Vodou religion. He says, “Haitian music is and has always been about the Vodou. I find its inspiration endless. Everything from rhythms, to melodies, to messages.” Most foreigners can’t get beyond the Bond film, “Live and Let Die” representations of Vodou, and nervously joke about putting pins in dolls, but for artists in Haiti it is, as Morse says, a rich source of imagery, colour, movment and rhythm.

On the live evidence, their drumming is getting heavier, and their forays into rara are getting longer, and wilder. RAM’s new album (their third), provisonally entitled “Songs from the Last Testament”, will, Morse says, be “more extreme. It’s more vodou and more rock. You feel the essence of each genre without feeling compromised.”

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