Mizik Lakay

The Vibrant Political Spirit of Haitian Music

By Nheissa Isidor


 Abstract

Haiti’s vibrant music exemplifies a unique mélange of vivid elements from various cultures. Along with the rich cultural heritage brought by the enslaved Africans, Haitian music reflects distinct influences from Taino, French and Spanish cultures. Over the years, the number of musical influences continues to grow and significantly shapes the musical styles of Haiti. Drawing from the scholarship of Gage Averill who has documented the significance of Haitian politics in some of Haiti’s musical genres and vice versa, this essay aims to analyze the distinct origins and structures of some of Haiti’s well-known musical genres and to expand on the roles that music plays in economic, political and social change. This analysis will also examine crucial components such as the musical structures, societal standards, significant political transformations, religious systems and class divisions in order to demonstrate the dynamics of some of Haiti’s legendary music. This essay also argues that music has the revolutionary potential to challenge the limits of social control, especially in politically unstable countries. As a valuable component to Haitian culture, it’s essential to scrutinize the contributions that Haitian music has made to reiterate its national identity and gradually mold Haitian society.

Key words: Kanaval, Mizik Ayisyen, Papa Doc, Mini-djaz, Roots, Vodou, Class Division, Resistance, Music, Konpa, Rara, Tonton Makout, Mardi Gras, Politics, Baby Doc.


Introduction

Since the 15th century, enslaved Africans from various cultural backgrounds were brought to the island of Hispaniola in order to contribute to the economic expansion of the dominating empires at the time. After years of harsh treatments and inequality by the French, its people, including the gens de couleur (the mixed-race, mulatto class) and the slaves of Haiti, fought against slavery and established a republic on January 1st, 1804. Consequently, Haitians have merged their traditional beliefs from multiple African cultures with the Catholic religion, that they have been exposed to by the Europeans in order to form the Vodou religion. Now, many genres of music in Haiti have been linked to the Vodou religion. Some common attributes among those genres include the rhythmic drumming, spiritual chanting and dancing. Over the years, with the exposure of western influences such as jazz, blues and meringue, many musical styles of Haiti emerged. These styles include mixtures of specific influences (i.e. African, American, Latin, and French) and traditional Haitian melodies. Moreover, with the popular cultural themes deeply rooted since independence, a distinct way to display cultural pride and as potential coping outlet, music has emerged to be the vibrant spirit of Haitian culture.

 

Political and Religious Music in Haiti

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Mambo feeding a line of drummers, making a rhythmic beat on the drums. Photo by Shannon Taggart

In many ways, politics and music have become intertwined in the Haitian society. As a result, this concept has shaped the political views of Haitians throughout the years. Themes such as political freedom, equality and justice are often common across musical genres. Evidently, many holidays celebrated in Haiti are heavily centered around music. A well-known holiday is Kanaval season, which normally begins in early January leading up to Mardi Gras in February. This holiday period is full of festivities consisting of street parades, artistic performances, street merchandise and concerts from local musicians. Kanaval music corresponds to a multitude of musical genres; varying from traditional music such as Mizik Rasin and Rara to modern styles of music such as mini-djaz, konpa and even hip-hop. Drawing from Gage Averill’s (1994) assertion about Kanaval’s aesthetic form of politics, it does serve multiple of roles for the Haitian society. As Averill (1994, 243) states, “Carnival music comes into play as part of a chaotic soundscape. Music establishes the existence of not only the groups, but the Carnival itself.” In other words, it represents a medium to which the “peuple” (meaning people in French) can voice their opinions and criticize local struggles through musical expression, that may rarely be silenced. Additionally, it strengthens communities in Haiti since this genre of music projects their size, power and unity.

“The resistant, rebellious, and revolutionary potential of carnival, which brings the powerless into collective organization and encourages the “mockery of the politically powerful”

– David Kerzter, 1988.

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Typical Haitian Kanaval setting: Upper and Middle class on the stan and the urdan poorclass in the foul. Photo taken by Verdy Vern.

The popular character of Kanaval flourished at the end of the U.S. occupation (Averill 1994). During this time, carnival bands were called otofonik. Their instruments consisted of brass instruments, flutes, bongo, tchatcha and drums. The bann apyes were bands who performed in the streets with bamboo trumpets called vashkin. Due to the prevalent socioeconomic divide in Haiti, the bands, known as Rara bands, were formed by the urban poor. Drawing from McAllister (2002)’s anthropological study, the French-speaking elite belittled the cultural attributes of the poor urban class and often times, aligned individuals associated with vulgarity or participating in Rara festivities with the concept of “les classes dangereuses” ( translated as the dangerous class). Rara members, shaped by their social class or their Vodou religion, used their cultural differences as a tool for self-expression. Rara bands integrated their patronage of Vodou spirits, rituals/ceremonies, social obscenities and derogating nicknames from the upper class into their music. Surprisingly, Rara bands gain the privilege of criticizing greedy politicians during public performances, then may randomly salute the spirits at a crossroad as the militia passed by. Thus, the underlying religious layer of Rara music provided a protective advantage for the bann apyes.

Footage of Female-leading Rara bands during Kanaval. Uploaded by Reggie Dee on Youtube.

 

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Rara band player with his vaskin. Photo taken by Alfonso Lomba

Early on, the primary focus of the elite for Carnival was a song competition, where the new songs were ranked by the government and assigned committees on their effect on the crowd rather the logistics behind the musical composition. A perfect carnival song must insinuate an urge to dance, joy and ‘loose” behavior. The bands must developed an ambience to where the listeners will become “antyoutyout” (meaning excited in Kreyol). There are numerous stages in a song where musicians can initiate to achieve that state. One way is to chofe or heat up the crowd by shouting phrases that are typically responded. In their performances, the musicians often encourage others to lage ko-w (let loose), or hype them up with such phrases “Leve de men w anle” ( put your hands in the air), “gouye” (wine or grind) and sote (Jump!). Thus, Kanaval music acquires a specific structure or popular emotion. As a result, Kanaval songs tend to have a rapid tempo and intensity.

A band named Kreyol La controlling the crowd during the 2017 Kananal. Uploaded by JF16 Haiti on Youtube.

The Musical Explosion of Politics

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Francois Duvalier, President for life from 1957 to 1971. Photo by Archive Photos, Inc.

Francois Duvalier, commonly known as “Papa Doc”, was once Haiti’s self-proclaimed dictator for life. He was responsible for gearing Kanaval and similar musical celebrations toward politics. Averill (1994, 225) asserts that Duvalier used music as an outlet to distract the Haitian people from the damaging social and economic hardships at the time. Remarkably, Kanaval surfaced to symbolize a state of stability with happy citizens. Throughout the years, Papa Doc and other politicians under his regime have ordered musicians to create songs for their campaigns or to ameliorate their master status in the society. These songs were played everywhere, especially in public events such as festivals/parades. For instance, the theme of the Carnival of 1964 in Haiti was “Papa Doc for Life” and all participating musicians were required to create a tribute song that must be performed as they pass by the white Palais National in Champs-de-Mars. Similar to Zaire’s Congolese musical explosion under Mobutu Sese Seko, the government, backed by the trauma of the tonton makout (the loyal militia force under the control of Duvaliers), were forcefully bribing bands performed songs strictly highlighting the temporary advancements or other positive attributes of Duvalier’s administration (White 2008).

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“Papa Doc” in 1962, surrounded by his “tonton makout” militia. Photo from Getty Images.

Audio of the best carnival song of 1965, Men Jet la by Webert Sicot, dedicated to Duvalier’s construction of the Mais Gate International Airport. Uploaded by Mario de Volcy on Soundcloud.

Duvalier often utilized special carnivals and festive demonstrations as political tactics. For instance, Duvalier conducted a bloody massacre in 1963 that forced potential victims to seek asylum in the Dominican Republic (Averill 1997). With tension increasing between the two countries, Duvalier launched a festive demonstration. Bands, decorations and floats encompassed the Dominican embassy; however, this gesture was ineffective since the Organization of American States investigators arrived in Haiti. Unsurprisingly, Papa Doc transported thousands of peasants to Port-au-Prince and provided them with music and alcohol in exchange for them to display their support of the Duvalier’s administration (Diederich and Burt 1986, 211-13). Moreover, the Duvalier’s era boosted the popularity of konpa and increased the competition between the current bands. This competition was used to also shift the people’s attention on the accumulating issues that the country faced such as the decline of tourism and foreign aid, decreasing agricultural production and political inefficiency.

 

Emergence of Mini-djaz

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Jean-Claude Duvalier, President of Haiti from 1971 to1986. Photo from Getty Images

Jean-Claude Duvalier, often referred as “Baby Doc”, succeeded his father after his death in April 1971.  One of the legacies of Jean-Claude’s reign was the emergence of mini-djaz. Inspired by the American and European musical genres of the 1960s, instruments of mini-djaz consisted of electric guitars, tenor saxophones and congas. However, mini-djaz inherited the dominant rhythm of konpa. Arguably, the 1970s is considered the “renaissance” of Haitian’s carnivals. The floats and assigned venues were well-decorated and adequately financed. Baby Doc, a huge supporter of mini-djaz, encouraged the growth of bands by sponsoring or hiring them for political events (Averill 1994, 232). Consequently, due to the high demand of mini-djaz songs, bands rarely released albums. In addition, the rapid tempo of mini-djaz was not well-received in the neighboring francophone countries, resulting political resentment and defaulting finances for many bands.

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Haitian Kanaval in the 1970s, image of Les difficiles de Petion-ville. Photo originally posted by Tikreyol.

 

Subsequently, the freedom for political expression emanated under his administration, especially as the press became more uncensored. Musicians took this opportunity to start embedding political messages in their songs. However, it was until the 1980s that the effect of these political expressions became prominent, consequently, many journalists, musicians and advocates were exiled, jailed and physically tortured by the militia. With the heavy corruption and his wife, Michele Bennet Duvalier’s gold-digging habits, the people of Haiti became widely aware of the destructive political decisions that his administration has made; Examples vary from allowing the slaughter of the creole pigs by the U.S. to the effective public health initiatives to combat the AIDS epidemic. Musicians soon began to use their platform to criticize the government and spread the anti-dictatorship sentiment. When Michelle Duvalier built her luxurious stan ( meaning stand in English) with a bar, a toilet and electricity for the 1982 carnival,  Bossa Combo, a well-known mini-djaz band formerly sponsored by Baby Doc, released a masterpiece called “Carnaval 82 (Mato).”

 

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Former President Jean-Claude Duvalier and his wife, Michele Bennett, on their wedding day. Photo from Miami Herald.

Subsequently, the freedom for political expression emanated under his administration, especially as the press became more uncensored. Musicians took this opportunity to start embedding political messages in their songs. However, it was until the 1980s that the effect of these political expressions became prominent, consequently, many journalists, musicians and advocates were exiled, jailed and physically tortured by the militia. With the heavy corruption and his wife, Michele Bennet Duvalier’s gold-digging habits, the people of Haiti became widely aware of the destructive political decisions that his administration has made; Examples vary from allowing the slaughter of the creole pigs by the U.S. to the effective public health initiatives to combat the AIDS epidemic. Musicians soon began to use their platform to criticize the government and spread the anti-dictatorship sentiment. When Michelle Duvalier built her luxurious stan ( meaning stand in English) with a bar, a toilet and electricity for the 1982 carnival,  Bossa Combo, a well-known mini-djaz band formerly sponsored by Baby Doc, released a masterpiece called “Carnaval 82 (Mato).”

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Lyrics and translation of a verse on Carnaval 82 (Mato) by Bossa Combo. The lyrics above addresses how the Michelle’s stand was a symbol of waste and excess (Averill 1994, 236).

Audio of Carnival 82 (Mato) by Bossa Combo. Uploaded by Bossa Combo on Youtube.

Similarly, the common lyrics consisted of metaphors, humorous statements or strategic ridicules. This explains why most songs could only be understood based of one’s familiarity with the jokes, rumors and insults common at the time. Later this decade, the middle class and the marginalized urban working class aligned as the anti-Duvalier sentiment became widely prevalent.

 

Bring Us Back to Our Roots!

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Boukman Eksperyans performing live in 2015. Photo by Jazz Journal.

In 1986, Baby Doc was forced to renounce his presidency and seek asylum in France. The political aftermath was a chaotic transition filled with military interventions, coup d’états and more political unrest, resulting Kanaval to be cancelled for three consecutive years. During the 1990s, specifically under a General Prospere Avril’s administration, the ti-legliz movement and the increasing development of peasant organization set a blueprint for many musicians to embrace (Averill 1997). Along with the strong influence of American rock music, the rise of neo-traditional music with influences of Vodou and Rara celebrations attracted a solid audience. The Afro-centric vibes and Rastafarian influences inspired bands to carry a progressive consensus. Mizik rasin (meaning roots music in English) was the product and the legendary band, Boukman Eksperyans became the leading figure of this musical movement. In 1990 carnival, Boukman Eksperyans released their famous song “Ke’m Pa Sote” (translated as “My Heart Doesn’t Leap” or “I Am Not Afraid”) that addressed this nationalistic sentiment toward the oppressive tonton makouts and the elite. Many of the roots-inspired music at the time were adopted by local Rara bands that expanded their popularity nationwide. Nowadays, this song continues to be played, especially to address the current oppressive actions of politicians.

Video of Boukman Eksperyans’s hit, Ke’m Pa Sote. Uploaded by Emmanuel V on Youtube.

After Aristide’s coup d’état in 1991, the proceeding militaristic government targeted the supporters of Aristide. Astoundingly, Boukman Eksperyans was forbidden to play “Ke’m Pa Sote” and its concerts were often disrupted by the militia. As a response, the band released “Kafou Danjere”, a Kanaval song who reinstated their role to represent the “people”. In their video, they incorporated a common Vodou theology of the crossroads, where they stopped for

Vodou ceremonies and confronted the tonton makouts. The video was banned from playing on all national media. Despite the repressive barriers, music has allowed these religious and political expressions to still flourish and has played an integral role in Haitian history.

 

Video of Boukman Eksperyans’s song, Kafou Deranje. Uploaded by Emmanuel V on Youtube.

 

Conclusion

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Photos of the July’s Carnival des Fleurs reinstated by the Martelly Administration in 2014. Photos by Plezi Kanaval.

For many decades, specifically under the Duvalier’s years, the voice of many Haitian civilians has been suppressed; however, music has provided them with the freedom to express their cultural pride, their political views and their religious beliefs. Specifically, during Kanaval, the lyrics of Rara, mini-djaz and Mizik rasin has exemplify the current sentiments of the people. Artists don’t only set the mood of the audience at Kanaval but they brought forth symbolic lyrics and images to set a memorable mark in history. Thus, these religious and political music in Haiti were strategically used by the middle and urban-working class to confront the societal norms of classes and the repressive legacies of the government. Consequently, music has and will continue to play a vital role in the lives of many Haitians as they are still confronting the country’s stagnant problems.

Haitian musician, Roody Rood Boy, won the best Kanival song of 2017. The song addresses security shows, corruption, education inequalities, mass demonstrations and more. Uploaded by Plezi Kanaval on Youtube.

 


Bibliography

Guilbault, Jocelyne. 1993. Zouk: World Music in the West Indies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Averill, Gage. 1994. “Anraje to Angaje: Carnival Politics and Music in Haiti.” Ethnomusicology, 38: 217- 247

Averill, Gage. A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

White, Bob W. 2008. Rumba rules: the politics of dance music in Mobutu’s Zaire. Durham: Duke University Press.

Brill, Mark. 2011. Music of Latin America and the Caribbean. Boston, MA: Pearson Prentice Hall.

McAlister, Elizabeth. 2002. Rara!: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

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