Actress, dancer, singer and writer – Martha Jean-Claude was born in Port-au-Prince, in 1919, and started singing at a very young age. She was a soloist at the Port-au-Prince Cathedral. On 20 December 1952, when three months pregnant, she was imprisoned for criticising the Magloire government and because of her husband’s Communist activities. Released for health reasons, it was made clear that the authorities found her presence undesirable, and she left Haiti for a life of exile first in Venezuela and then Cuba.
Her first album, Canciones de Haití, was released in 1956, following a meeting with Celia Cruz, and she became an instant success. Anthony Phelps, a Haitian poet, described her “marvelously nuanced and coloured voice” that “easily glides from the very low to the highest note”. She became the star of the largest Cuban cabarets, and performed regularly throughout the Americas and beyond.
Martha Jean-Claude’s deep knowledge of Haitian folklore served as the inspiration for her songs, and while in exile in Cuba, during the Duvalier dictatorships, she remained profoundly Haitian and very much in touch with her roots. She did not return to Haiti until after the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, when she received a tremendous welcome. In May 1996, the Martha Jean-Claude Cultural Foundation was inaugurated under the direction of her son, Richard, to work to promote the culture and the shared inheritance of Cuba and Haiti.
Martha Jean-Claude died on 14 November 2001. Obituary here.
Discography: Canciones de Haití (1956); Martha canta a los niños (1971); Yo soy la canciòn de Haití (1975); Agwe (1976); Mwen se fanm 2 peyi/ Soy mujer de dos islas (1995).