"Over the years I've been an avid fan of Gage Averill's work in The Beat Magazine.…His book, which relies on a fascinating and riveting blend of history, first-person accounts, musician interviews, and song texts, is the indispensable and entertaining companion for anyone wishing to venture into the heady and rewarding complexities of Haitian music and politics."—Jonathan Demme
An excerpt from|
A Day for the Hunter,
A Day for the Prey
Popular Music and Power In Haiti
This is a book about music and power, or more exactly about music in the discourse and relations of power. I contend that Haitian politics and more generally the struggle for power have insinuated themselves into every arena of musical expression. Popular music, as a discursive terrain, is a site at which power is enacted, acknowledged, accommodated, signified, contested, and resisted. Emerging in the context of power relations, popular music bears the traces of those relations. A popular Haitian aphorism has it that Ayiti se tè glise (Haiti is a slippery country), and this is nowhere truer than in the convoluted landscape of Haitian politics. What I attempt in these pages is to communicate some of the subtle and complex interactions of music and power in Haiti and to point in some possibly productive directions for understanding why they are so often yoked together.
Encounters in Music and Power
My perspectives on Haitian popular music have developed through eight years of interactions, conversations, observations, and readings, and my account of music and power in Haiti reflects those experiences. To clarify the contingent and subjective nature of my knowledge about these issues, let me begin by recounting a few brief anecdotes culled from my field notes and embellished with "head notes" (memories).
It was a surprisingly long drive from Cap-Haïtien, the northern provincial capital, to the town of Bas-Limbé. Picking up four hitchhikers, who rode on our rental car's bumper, we bounced in near-total darkness down the dirt road leading from National Route 1 into Bas-Limbé, site of a fèt chanpèt (countryside festival) and host that night to one of Cap Haïtien's two venerable orchestras, Orchestre Septentrionale. This was in the middle of August, the month of vakans (vacation time), when towns all over Haiti hold fèt chanpèts and fèt patwonals (patron's day festivals). Septentrionale had just recorded a song at the time about this kind of event called "Plezi chanpèt" (Pleasures of the country festival). It beautifully illustrates the pleasures to be found in a chanpèt, the importance of the festival, and the money that it brings from the city to the countryside.
The yard for dancing at Bas-Limbé was surrounded with a chest-high block wall. There were cars parked randomly; many taptaps (pick-up trucks converted into brightly painted, covered buses); and female vendors selling sweets, kleren (cane liquor), and coffee. The ticket window was a hole in the block wall through which a number of people were trying to stick their hands. Joining the battle of the hands, I picked up tickets for our group of four, and we snaked single file through the crowd-control entrance. Inside, the atmosphere was much more "relaks." Tables dotted the grass in the dark, piled with bottles of Barbancourt rum and with bowls of lanbi (conch). The generator roared off to one side, providing the electricity to run the few lights and the band's PA system.
The twelve members of Septentrionale who were present finished tuning their instruments and launched into some older tunes in their patented rhythm, the rit boul difè (fireball rhythm) similar to konpa but with some Cuban influences and idiosyncratic touches. We joined in the slow dancing close to the stage. After a potpourri of romantic boleros, the band sang a recent song about the history of Haiti's hardships since the slave rebellion in 1791, with the following chorus:
In writing this song and others in a more socially engaged vein (called mizik angaje, or politically engaged music), Septentrionale joined many other bands and performers who were weighing in on the social transformations shaping the country. Only two years after the exile of the Duvalier family and still very much in a tumultuous period in Haiti's political history, most musicians were taking their roles as cultural leaders seriously.
Somewhere in the latter part of the song, a group of rowdy tonton makout-s (former members of the Duvalierist militia), who were at a table in the back of the enclosure, pulled out some guns and started firing into the air. This had been the standard behavior for makout-s during the Duvalier years, when it was part of their mode of enjoyment, but it shocked many at the dance during a period where the makout-s were so on the defensive. With the crowd startled, the lead singer stopped the band and shouted into the mic, "No, no. Puts your guns back. There will be no firing guns here. This is for pleasure. Relax a bit. No guns, okay?" And relax they did; the music started up, the guns went back in the holsters, and people went back to slow dancing. This informal countryside festival was intended to be as far from a political event as one gets in Haiti, yet here I was struck by how close to the surface the political struggle was, how ready to spill over into any public event. In the era of dechoukaj (uprooting, i.e., basic change), musical pleasures were generally not very far from political pressures.
Perhaps more obviously political was an incident I recounted previously in an article on Haitian carnival. At an outdoor Haitian music festival that I helped to organize in Miami at carnival time in 1989, the final band, Miami Top Vice, launched into a spirited carnival medley. I looked out into the crowd from the stage to see a number of men spread their arms to lese frape (let hit), and exuberant carnival behavior, and I realized too late that I had neglected to inform the police that this might occur. As officers dove into the crowd to arrest the men for "drunk and disorderly" behavior, the announcer grabbed the microphone, silenced the music, and encouraged the crowd to surround the police to demand the release of the Haitians. A police call for help (scarcely two months after the infamous Overtown riots in Miami) brought what seemed like every squad car and fire engine in downtown Miami to the scene within minutes. As we negotiated with the police for a tense half-hour, members of the crown began to make use of the three-toned whistles passed out as free souvenirs by the sponsor, the Nutrament Corporation (manufacturer of a sports drink). Crowd members combined the three tones into hocketed patterns (in which the melody tones are distributed among many instruments) resembling those of rara and carnival bands. Empty Nutrament cans filled in for bells, and antipolice carnival songs (part of a traditional form of censure called chan pwen-s, or sung points) were composed on the spot. As I watched these makeshift carnival ensembles fire up the crowds, I was in awe of the power of carnival music—even here in the Haitian diaspora—to animate a confrontation of this sort. In the sociopolitical space of the diaspora, the political issues were different, but the crowd was manifesting its access to the same tactics and tools of musicopolitical signification used in Haiti, the same weapons of musical mawonaj.
Thinking back on these three experiences and on many others like them, I am aware that throughout my research on Haitian music I was dogged by the question of music's role in enacting and negotiating authority, domination, co-optation, subordination, hegemony, and resistance. This book is an effort to grapple with these questions.