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Posted January 7, 2009
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Living With Music: Madison Smartt Bell
By Gregory Cowles
Madison Smartt Bell is the author of numerous books, including a recent biography of Toussaint Louverture.
 Rebel Music Old and New
I started listening to most of this music in the early 1990s, as I was finishing the first of what would be three long novels about revolutionary events a long time ago in a small obscure place that few people in the United States had heard of and fewer cared about. What's different now? At least a few more people are aware that Haiti, and the conditions of living in Haiti, are closer to us here than we used to like to think.
madison smartt bell
1) President, Wyclef Jean. One of the few English-language tracks on Wyclef's astounding "Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101" - an album I've used for a language and cultural primer (exactly as advertised) since it came out in 2004. When I first heard this song I associated it with Haitian elections, and with a comment by a Haitian academic friend of mine who'd been invited to serve in the government and declined, with some regret, but firmly. It's difficult, he explained to me, to find enough people who are capable and competent, whose probity is beyond question and who don't object to the strong possibility of assassination.

2) Revolution, Bob Marley. I first heard this one when "Natty Dread" broke on college campuses in the late 1970s. While writing "All Souls Rising," I wore out the first two Wailers records. Marley's is more tenacious than most other rebel music because the political message is so deeply rooted in religion because the singer locates revolution in revelation with the first breath of this song.

3) Jou Nou Revolte (The Day We Revolt), Boukman Eksperyans. This group, a front-runner in the Haitian Misik Rasin (Roots Music) movement, studied Bob Marley to create a protest far more durable than its immediate topics, combining trance-inducing drums and a religious vision from Haitian voodoo, guitars in the style of Hendrix and Santana, and a sense of political urgency coinciding with the vast populist groundswell that swept Jean-Bertrand Aristide to his first election to Haiti's presidency in 1990.

4) Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads), Boukman Eksperyans. This song was so explosive that it was banned from the 1992 Carnival for which it was composed — at a time when a coup d'ćtat had forced President Aristide into exile and Haiti was ruled by a military junta and paramilitary gunmen called attachs. In Haitian voodoo the crossroads is a place of judgment - the intersection of the divine and material realms - and this song summons the whole voodoo pantheon in support of the freedom and democracy movement. If not banned, this number would have been performed in a parade across the Champs de Mars in front of the presidential palace. The chaotic crowd sounds that creep into the last couple of movements evoke that situation, as well as the kind of energy overflow that occurs at peaks of Haitian voodoo ceremonies.

5) Fey (Leaf), R.A.M. After Boukman's lead singer, Ll Beaubrun, was plausibly threatened with assassination onstage (Don't play Kalfou Danjere was the message, but Lolo, possessed by Ogoun at the time, couldn't hear it), Boukman Eksperyans fled Haiti and the other Misik Rasin groups followed — all but R.A.M., which dug into its headquarters at the Oloffson Hotel for the duration. The band leader, Richard Morse, had dual Haitian-American citizenship and an intrepid willingness to be assassinated on Saturday, buried on Sunday, go back to work on Monday, etc. The band played Fey every Thursday night, though sometimes attachs would mark those who got up to dance to be murdered later, outside the gate. The lyric recasts a traditional voodoo song as a coded message predicting Aristide's return. ...

6) Carte Postale d'Ayiti, Bell & Cooper. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I sent the traditional voodoo song "Twa Fey" (Three Leaves) to my lyricist Wyn Cooper — in Haitian Creole, a language he does not speak. And got back the words to this postcard from Haiti ... Dada experiment or sincere attempt to cajole inspiration from les Invisibles, this track is brought to life by a lot of musicians better than I am, but especially by percussionist Jim Brock.

7) Four Hundred Years, Peter Tosh. The title of this song, which I listened to over and over for most of a decade, was meant to be the umbrella title for my trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution, though deployed only in my mind. The song marvelously universalizes the whole problem of the legacy of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. And to know when those 400 years will be over you'd have to fix a date when they began. ...

8) True Blues, the Last Poets. A bit of a detour, this one … in some ways, but in others not. The Last Poets are the ur-grandparents of rap (there's even a phrase foreshadowing Wyclef's "President" in this lyric). Their purist approach, using only voice and African drum patterns, reappears in the most fundamental Misik Rasin tracks, especially the use of voice as a percussive element. And in "True Blues" the Last Poets have a powerful take on the theme of Tosh's "Four Hundred Years."

9) P Etćnl (Eternal Father), Emeline Michel. This song brings in some flavors of compas, Haiti's good-time music, preferred by the Duvalier regime and served, limitlessly, to tourists. But this number is dancing its way though pain: at once a celebration of the beauty of the country, a prayer for protection when visiting there and a poignant lament for the sorrow of not being able to live there safely. Since the 1960s, exile for Haitians is a condition that ends only to begin again. I like to encourage myself with this one while getting ready for trips to Haiti, especially if conditions look shaky at the other end....

10) Se Yo Ki Lakoz (It's Their Fault), Boukan Ginen. The lead singer, Eddy Franois, started with Boukman Eksperyans, then joined this new group. Like Kalfou Danjere, it's a call to judgment for the spoliators of the country … but from a slightly longer and less immediately combative perspective. So much of Marley's music also manages to protest the very conditions of human existence while somehow accepting them at the same time.

11( Sa'm Pdi (What Do I Lose?), Boukman Eksperyans. When I first went to Haiti in 1995, I had an assignment to write about this group as a sort of journalistic cover. The Beaubrun family befriended me and taught me the basics of central voodoo practice - Ginen - which shares the essential tenets of charismatic Christianity and the other great religions of the world. More inwardly oriented than other Rasin songs on this list, this one's about losing one's life to find it.

12) Any Other Day, Day, Norah Jones and Wyclef Jean. Meanwhile, back in the United States, Katrina … here to let us know that the third world situation has arrived in America, or maybe that it has been here all along. This joint effort is a marvelous musical Creolization, blending Norah Jones's style with the myriad Haitian, American and African petals in Wyclef's potpourri.

13) Priy Ginen (Ginen Prayer), Wawa & Rasin Kanga. Misik Rasin in its purest elemental form, this track also brings forward the element of voodoo ceremony latent in the work of other such groups in a prayer for the country's survival: "Grace, Deliverance, Papa, for my country." Don't listen to these drums if you're driving.

14) Py Ginen (Ginen Prayer), Buyu Ambroise. Here's another take on the same theme as the last one, with a horn haunted by Coltrane's Spiritual ghost of McCoy Tyner on keyboards. ...

15) Papa Damballah, Toto Bissainthe. An ode to the interminable struggle of survival in Haiti: "Before daybreak, I'm working; after sunset, look, I'm working still." I discovered this beautiful singer recently, thanks to the soundtrack of a heartbreaking little movie about Haitian labor camps in the Dominican Republic: "Haiti Cherie."

16) Moise Dezo (Moses of the Waters, Eddy Franois. From the solo project Zinga, this is a traditional voodoo song with many layers of meaning. The first idea I captured is in the line "I'm carrying water with a spoon," which says a lot, already, about what it takes to keep on working at a task that logic tells you has got to be hopeless. Job is so famous for his patience that we sometimes forget that he was also the most daring rebel ever to stick his head up to challenge Yahweh.

17) President, Wyclef Jean. Yep, I think it;s a good idea to listen to this one again in a new context. You can take it at face value if you want to, because in Haiti, though death comes early and often, the dead don't disappear anywhere, but remain invisibly near to the living, so that leaders of today can claim that the spirits of the revolutionary heroes are walking close beside them all the time. But there's no need to be literal about it. What if the United States elected - what if we have elected - somebody who can preside over the whole arc of our trouble, with this kind of unstoppable will to keep going?

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Books, of Wednesday, January 7, 2009.
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