Travel in music: Chapter 22 - 2002-03, Haiti
2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!
2002-2003 – Chapter 22 | Haiti was to be my 13th and last project for the advertorial agency that had employed me for three full years. It was also one of my most cherished experiences in a slew of unforgettable ones. The country, the culture, the people, and even the strange atmosphere, where decay and elation seemed to coexist with little paradox, all bewitched me. These were the last months of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s power. He was already entangled in deep confrontation with his erstwhile (reluctant) backers, the USA and France, but spent all his energy on the upcoming celebration of the country’s bicentennial. Either out of naivety, bravado or out of a sense of stubborn optimism, at the beginning of 2003, he genuinely believed that his country’s future was shining brightly. He did not share or grasp the feeling of impending doom observers like us could smell in Haiti’s muggy air. If he did, he did not let on. A few months later, though, as forewarned, US soldiers stormed his palace and forced him to board a plane to indefinite exile at the point of a gun. Concurrently, CIA-trained paramilitary right-wing rebels bore down on Port-au-Prince from the Dominican Republic border and from the northern city of Gonaives.
Given that a similar fate befell the Bolivian President I had interviewed in my previous project, I later wondered if I had a cursing power of sorts. Of course, I am neither superstitious nor pretentious enough to believe it. In retrospect, it had certainly more to do with my employers’ choice of victims. Ailing Presidents, ready to loosen the national purse strings to improve their image with a press campaign, were prime carrion. In Goñi’s case, I did not mind so much playing the role of media vulture. Ours was a game everyone understood and I was merely its hapless instrument, I theorized. With Aristide, however, I had felt decidedly filthy and downright ashamed, even if those feelings truly surged only long after I left the country.
This was the 2nd time that a violent coup had removed Aristide from power. Not unlike his country, he was a disturbing thorn in the side of the powerful. He had been born and raised in abject poverty, accessing education only thanks to the Salesian monastic order, which he then joined as a priest upon completion of his post-graduate. He entered politics through priesthood, in the mid-80s. Fiery sermons and pro-poor initiatives grew his reputation both as the voice of Haiti’s dispossessed and as an unpalatable troublemaker. He criticized ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s brutal dictatorships vehemently and did not spare his own church authorities, which he accused of complicity. He suffered exile, multiple assassination attempts and expulsion from the church but won election by a landslide upon democracy’s return to the island in 1990. Eight months into his presidency, a CIA-orchestrated coup, tacitly approved by France, deposed him. He had kicked the hornets’ nest a little too hard: frozen the assets of ex-Duvalier henchmen, replaced French with Kreyol as the main education language, exposed embarrassing ties between the military and Colombian narcos, and more. Due to very heavy popular pressure, Clinton grudgingly helped to reinstate him to finish his original term in 1994.
For the sake of brevity, I will spare you further details on Haiti’s turbulent political history. What I find interesting are the parallels with the country’s birth. For Haiti's original sin was 'sticking it to the man' too precociously. The nation emerged from a bloody slave rebellion against its colonial masters in 1804. Illiterate slaves, armed with machetes and sickles crushed Napoleon’s armies, sent to tame the revolt, a mere 15 years after the French revolution inspired a call for liberty and more than 60 years before the USA fought a civil war over the right to own other humans! In many ways, that illegitimate birth shaped its entire existence. Haiti still pays a very dear price for this arrogant claim to emancipation. Simon Bolívar initiated his campaign to free Latin America from its colonial yolk after landing in Venezuela with Haitian troops in 1816. Yet in 1825, when Bolívar convened the newly independent nations to the Congress of Panama, to forge a common way forward for the continent, Haiti (and Paraguay, for very different reasons) was the only country he did not invite. Was he ungrateful? Was he afraid of acknowledging a nation run by ex-slaves when the economy of the entire continent still depended on slave labor? I often wonder: did Bob Marley write his famous quote “every time I plant a seed, they say kill it before it grows” in reference to Haiti?
My life on the island, however, was rather carefree considering the surrounding turmoil. I was living in one of the two posh hotels of the capital, in Pétionville, and partying almost every night with wild abandon. On Thursdays, without fault, we danced until dawn to the voodoo-rock rhythms of R.A.M. at Hotel Oloffson. On the uneven planks of its dancefloor, spurred by heady rum vapors, an eclectic crowd of NGO workers, bodyguards, diplomats, sailors, US Marines, politicians, intellectuals, and poets all intermingled like characters in a Graham Greene novel. We attended concerts of Mizik Rasin legends such as Boukman Eksperyans or Koudjay. We bopped with teenagers to the recent Konpa-pop sensation Carimi and slummed it with the rougher Rap Kreyol crowd at King Posse gigs.
As in many Caribbean islands, carnival is the most important cultural happening every year. Aristide was going to preside over the symbolically important bicentennial Kanaval and he was very keen to promote it. Therefore, he introduced us to the island’s foremost musical aristocracy. People like Black Alex, Samba Kessy, Tonton Bicha, and Sweet Micky. They took a liking to us and made it their mission to teach us how to dance Konpa in the city’s liveliest dives. Even Wyclef Jean joined us on one of these memorable, yet fuzzily remembered nocturnal expeditions. Thanks to those friendships, during the Kanaval, we were able to board Sweet Micky’s float, sponsored by the infamous “Comme il Faut” cigarette brand. It was quite something to steer through the million-strong crowd of insane carnival revelers on wheeled, giant loudspeakers, sitting next to Haiti’s most popular singer!
On weekends, we played ultimate frisbee on the lawn of the US ambassador’s residence and co-ed soccer with a crew of close friends who then also roped us in to boozy ‘hash’ runs on Sundays. For my birthday, they generously organized a weekend away to a beach resort and hired Les Frères Dodo to play music for us. Haiti Twoubadou was a consortium of all-star musicians that was banded together for two albums, recorded to honor the Twoubadou style of music – much like Ry Cooder had assembled Buena Vista Social Club to pay homage to Cuban son. The song below was a hit for Les Frères Dodo, reprised by Tonton Bicha and the Haiti Twoubadou crew. The lyrics are quite bawdy because Tonton Bicha is actually more famous as a comedian than as a singer. If you pay close attention, you may recognize Sweet Micky in drag. Exactly 8 years later, Haitians would elect him as President, under his real name, Michel Martelly. Back then, I would have not bet a cent on the likelihood of that happening.