Mizik Rasin: Rhythm and Roots of Haiti (Miami Herald)


Lolo Beaubrun performing with Boukman Eksperyans 

For all the tough-guy posturing of the gangsta rappers, the language of rebellion in hip-hop, the coolly sour attitude of alternative rock, North American pop music is, more often than not, just another product vying for shelf space, not much more subversive than soap.
The pop music of Haiti is a battlefield.

This in itself is not unusual in the developing world. Betrayed by traditional institutions, the poor and disenfranchised have often turned to their artists — Thomas
Mapfumo in Zimbabwe, Fela Kuti in Nigeria, Bob Marley in Jamaica, Gilberto Gil in Brazil — for relief, guidance, moral support.

But in few places has popular music so dramatically reflected and influenced the political life of the country as in Haiti.

The smooth, lilting konpa direk, dance music that emerged in the 1950s, was a mirror to an emerging middle class with worldly ambitions. Co-opted by the dictatorships of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1957-71) and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” (1971-86), the music became equal parts popular expression and court music. It has dominated the popular taste in Haiti since.

Mizik rasin, or roots music, has emerged in the past decade. It’s an exuberant mix of neo-African traditions and Western pop; and — like much of Western pop and classical music, it’s grounded in religious music. Here, the ritual music of voodoo and the rhythms of pre-Easter, rara carnival celebrations blend with elements of merengue and konpa, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, reggae, jazz, and Europop. The lyrics, sung in Creole, are poetic and streetwise: stories about community life, oblique morality tales, parables for those who know how to listen.

It has become a symbol of resistance.

“Until now, the people in Haiti laughed, and many would ask me, ‘How can people laugh with all that’s going on?’ ” says Theodore “Lolo” Beaubrun Jr., lead singer and songwriter of Boukman Eksperyans, the premier mizik rasin group, named after an 18th Century revolutionary voodoo priest. “But this music is part of our culture. Dance is part of our culture. . . . So when we play, it’s easy to reach people because they love this music.”

Ethnomusicologist Gerdes Fleurant, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, places mizik rasin in a larger context. “There is a process of re-Africanization going on,” he says. “Haiti is divided into two societies: Those who went to school and those who didn’t, those who live in the city and those who live in the countryside, those who are acculturated to Western ways and those who remain African. These young people (in the rasin movement) are acculturated and want to go back to their roots, claiming their heritage.

“When you go to school in Haiti, you are prevented from speaking Creole, you have a dress code, you are taught ways of behaving that are closer to Western European culture,” says Fleurant, who left Haiti in 1964 at age 15. “There is a sense of shame inculcated — a shame of the color, the texture of the hair, the thickness of the lips. And voodoo has been demonized as the main obstacle to progress.

“Roots music is trying to offer a positive view.”

Beaubrun takes it further. “If (people) can dance, and at the same time hear a serious message, they are going to take it with them. That’s why the rasin movement is so strong. That’s why all governments since 1986, except (President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide’s, have been afraid of the movement, very frightened.”

It should not be surprising. In a country where open gestures of dissent are met with breathtaking violence, symbols are often the only weapon of the powerless. In a place where few can read, the word of the storyteller becomes a precious link to the world at large. A choice of rhythm, an image, a slight change in a cliche take on an extraordinary resonance.

Even scholars have noted the role of popular musicians in the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. Several carnival songs of the early ’80s were little more than thinly-veiled criticisms of Duvalier and his powerful wife, Michele Bennett, says Gage Averill, who has written extensively about Haitian music. Among other examples, he cites a song by Bossa Combo containing lyrics sung in French to mock Bennett’s upper-class pretensions and a piece by Shooger Combo that ridiculed the power struggle between Bennett and one of her husband’s ministers.

These challenges to Duvalier both chronicled and contributed to the erosion of Duvalier’s authority, encouraging the opposition and hastening his departure, Averill writes in his article “Anraje to Angaje: Carnival Politics and Music in Haiti,” which will appear in the Ethnomusicology journal this summer.

Underscoring the importance of music in national politics, the military government in 1988 canceled carnival to minimize the potential for unrest. Two years later, in an effort to foster a perception of normalcy, Gen. Prosper Avril reinstated the festival. His plan backfired. Boukman Eksperyans’ defiant ”Ke-m Pa Sote” (roughly, My Heart Doesn’t Leap or I Am Not Afraid) said out loud what many poor Haitians — angry and frustrated with the abuses of the military and the political elite — had been whispering privately.

The political impact was immediate. “Ke-m Pa Sote” became an anthem for disenfranchised Haitians, both inside and outside the country, and was picked up as the theme song of a general strike called after the carnival. It marked the coming of age of voodoo-pop as a political force — and was also a turning point for Avril, who was pushed aside in favor of a civilian administrator.

Averill, a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, recalls how Gen. Avril seemed “oddly unsure” about the meaning of “Ke-m Pa Sote.”

“He didn’t know what to make of it. He didn’t understand it, and his advisers didn’t understand it. Some thought it might even be pro-government,” says Averill. “But that’s what happens in rasin music: There’s room for interpretation. A lot of songs are based on songs sung at the (voodoo) temples and are themselves based on African music and proverbs. If you don’t know the code, it doesn’t mean much.”

American Richard Morse, the founder and lead singer-songwriter of the popular rasin band RAM, agrees.

“Music is a way of communicating between people and with the spirits,” he says. “In voodoo, they use parables, and these parables give messages without ever mentioning who they are talking about. It can be a very effective political tool because the masses are already used to communicating this way in a religious context. Now you get it on the radio — and everybody in Haiti has a radio — and you have instant communication with the whole country.”

Morse grew up in Connecticut, the son of Haitian dancer and anthropologist Emerante des Pralines. A rock musician, he visited the island briefly twice before going back to stay in September 1985, “intrigued with the idea of mixing Haitian rhythms and (North) American pop.” (RAM, based in Port-au- Prince, performs at the Stephen Talkhouse in Miami Beach April 24.)

For Jan Sebon and Boulou, founders of Koleksyon Kazak, a Miami-based Haitian music, dance, and art collective, the codes found in mizik rasin are what make roots music the language to reach Haitian people.

“In Haiti, the only way you can communicate a message is through tradition,” says Boulou. “Eighty, 90 percent of the population cannot read, and you have to find a way to communicate.”

“Poetry is a weapon,” adds Sebon. “We have to make it beautiful. If you don’t like something, you don’t need to get a hammer and break it to make a point. You can come to that subject in a poetic way and make people think about it.”

Veteran Miami-based guitarist, bandleader and composer Andre “Dadou” Pasquet, one of the most respected musicians in Haitian popular music, both here and on the island, concurs. As a teenager in New York, Pasquet played and arranged konpa for such respected groups as Tabou Combo. With his own bands he has played both konpa and, increasingly in recent years, roots music.

“Roots music is more political. It doesn’t have to be, but it is because (it) is so real, so powerful, that it touches the guts of Haitian people,” Pasquet says. “So, as a singer, you really can’t allow yourself to sing stupid stuff. There are too many things to sing about, many serious things.”

But the words tell only part of the story.

That mizik rasin draws from the traditional rhythms of voodoo and rara — historically part of the culture of the peasantry and the lower urban class — is significant. Since its independence in 1804, after a 12-year war that ended with the only successful slave revolt in modern history, the politics of race and class in Haiti have been tightly intertwined.

In fact, the politics of modern Haiti have been largely shaped by two ideological strains, both with racial underpinnings. The mulatto ideology, espoused by descendants of freed slaves related by blood to the former colonists, has historically looked to Europe for cultural, political and economic models. Noirisme, on the other hand, argued for the political and economic interests of blacks.

But definitions of blackness in Haiti were harshly confounded by the Marine occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. The subtle shadings of color, crucial for Haitian society, were mostly lost on the Americans. It shocked the system.

One of the responses was the indigenist movement, launched in 1928, which championed a return to the African roots of Haitian culture and a re-evaluation of peasant culture, especially voodoo.

This found expression in the arts. By the 1940s, bands such as Jazz des Jeunes and Orchestre Saieh had developed voodoo jazz, a blend of Big Band swing, Haitian merengue and voodoo rhythms. As do their counterparts in mizik rasin today, they challenged the values of the elite.

“Jazz des Jeunes played in the hotels but it was not simplified voodoo music. It was really a precursor of what is going on now,” says Fleurant, the Wellesley ethnomusicologist. “They spoke openly in defense of Haitian popular culture. And there were others. These were all progressive people, nationalistic.”

But while “the guys in the roots movement today are proposing a total realignment of Haitian society, those guys back then did not,” Fleurant says. “They were just promoting roots.”

Ironically, the coming to power of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a prominent noirist, marked the beginning of the decline of Jazz des Jeunes and its roots-oriented music and the ascent of more urbane pop stylings more in keeping with the self-image of a fledging, urban middle class.

In 1955, saxophonist-bandleader Nemours Jean-Baptiste adapted Dominican merengue to create konpa direk. Elegant, simple to dance to, konpa became widely popular. Concerned with love and good times rather than political issues, it also fit the needs of the increasingly authoritarian Duvalier regime, which promptly turned it into its court music.

Despite some notable exceptions (the late Ti Manno and his D.P. Express, for example), konpa direk has remained entertainment. All of which, some rasin musicians suggest, makes konpa a tainted music. Roots music, they say, is the true music of the people.

As with much of Haitian reality, the issue is not that clear-cut.

“Konpa is not a music of consciousness. It’s a music of entertainment, accommodation,” says Fleurant. “But to say that konpa is the music of the establishment is an oversimplification. It is understood that ( konpa ) musicians . . . had to claim to be neutral, that the music was not political.”

Ives Joseph, one of the founders of Tabou Combo, perhaps the premier konpa band, readily admits to an apolitical stance — although the group has incorporated more socially conscious lyrics in recent years. But he resents charges that it was the music of the dictatorship.

“Our lyrics? Puff, nothing really, love songs,” Joseph says. “I’m not playing music to raise consciousness; I don’t disagree with people who do, but I play music for people to dance. But if they try to associate konpa as the music of the Macoutes (Duvalier’s brutal paramilitary force), I don’t agree with that. This is a very popular music. It is not associated with any one particular group.

“It’s sad that some of the people in roots music do not appreciate konpa when, in fact, konpa has often put Haiti on the map. It’s good that you have different kinds of music, so everybody can find what he likes. I feel roots music is very good for Haiti because it shows that we can not only produce konpa but other styles.”

For Beaubrun, however, the issues surrounding roots music boil down to something far simpler:

Independence hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines “freed us from the French but didn’t free us from the slavery of the mind,” he says. “That’s the idea we had when we started Boukman. The people were waiting for something. They still love konpa, but now they have an alternative. This is not a reaction against konpa but a reaction against a system that kept saying we’re nothing.

“I don’t tell you to become a voodoo practitioner — but I ask you to accept your culture, who we are. It’s really important. We can’t go forward with an inferiority complex.”


This feature story ran in The Miami Herald, April 1994.

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