Words by Maria Bakkalapulo.
Music offers a barometer of life in Haiti, to an almost bizarre extent. Just look at the country’s former president – Michele Martelly. Before Martelly became president five years ago, he was already known to Haitians as pop star ‘Sweet Micky’. After nearly five years of troubled leadership, thousands hit the streets demanding his resignation. As a way to get back at one of his biggest critics – human rights activist, Liliane Pierre-Paul – before leaving office, Martelly released the sexually suggestive song “Bal Bannann Nan” — Haitian Creole for “Give Them the Banana.” A week after the song’s release, he stepped down leaving no successor.
Martelly seemed to thrive on instability. Haiti’s popular 13-piece musical powerhouse, RAM, has experienced first-hand the impact of music on this island nation. Speaking from his home in Port-au-Prince, the band’s leader, .Haitian-American musician and hotelier and advisor to his cousin, former president, Michel Martelly, Richard Morse, knows instability in the country is on the horizon when the death threats start setting in. He begins the conversation about this with a dark, but poignant bit of humor “Haitians get nervous when there is too much rain and gunshots.” With great conviction, Morse also makes clear “I think Martelly should be in front of a judge. People know that I think he is awful. People know I think he is crooked. I know he is crooked.”
It’s the band’s musical influence on the people that makes them popular, but also puts them under threat. “If I want to talk to Haitian people, I do it musically through song. We are going through a bazaar time. I am getting threats again,” says Morse. “Martelly went four-and-a-half years without doing elections. They dismantled the parliament, they dismantled most institutions.” Morse speaks out about the government, which has put his life at risk. “They don’t say because you said this, we are going to shoot you. They just tell me you might get shot.” This is not the first time RAM has been told to keep quite. In November 2004, the police raided Morse’s Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince and made their way on stage during the band’s performance of “Justice,” arresting three members of the group mid-song. It’s been a while since he’s had his life threatened, says Morse. I got a lot of threats back in the 90’s when Jean Bertrand Aristide was in office. It has been a while. Back then I made a decision that I didn’t want my last thought to be ‘I should have said something.’ That would make the afterlife unpleasant,” espouses Morse. “A lot of poor people out there suffering, got nothing to lose.”
RAM was founded in 1990. RAM just recently released their first studio album in 10 years. In the 12 songs on Manman m Se Ginen, RAM goes straight to the heartbeat of Haitian culture by playing a style called “mizik rasin.” “The Haitian bible is in the songs. My band, we go to voodoo for inspiration,” says Richard Morse. “These songs are the roots of Haiti. Mizik rasin is just a Creole way of saying ‘roots music.’ The Haitian roots music goes way back, it is not only the roots of Haiti, it is the roots of jazz, blues and of western music to a great degree.” The songs conjure up cemetery spirits who wear top hats, as “Manman M Se Ginen,” “I am going to sleep in the cemetery to the head of the cemetery,” Morse describes the song “So if you attack me, I will have protection. So, when someone thinks they are going to be attacked, they will sing a song like that.” These traditional songs have great underlying meaning. “They are not praying like they want something someday, they are praying because they want something now. I need a meal now. I need a house now. I need a job now. Not someday, not sometime or in some other world. There is an immediacy to what the Haitians need,” Morse says. “At the same time, it is a dance song and people are having a good time. You can go as deep as you want, or just enjoy yourself as you sing it.” RAM continues to take clear stance that have garnered the displeasure of Haiti’s powers-that- be by pointing to ideals and attempting to cut through the politics. “Our alliances are with the Haitian people,” states Morse. “Day by day, we try and do the right thing.”
As so many times before, music is intertwined in all aspects of life in Haiti – in this case its politics. Tension on the island nation continues to grow, key entertainers like RAM who have a long history of provoking the establishment. RAM’s celebrates this victory in their latest release. On “Koulou Koulou,” they set prayers that date from Haiti’s revolutionary birth in an early form of Creole, where the song ”Ogou O,” praises the spirit ofmetal and war. “Haiti won its war in 1804,” emphasizes Morse. “They were fighting the French, English and Spanish. The rhythms we have, the songs that we have in Haiti, probably wouldn’t exist if they lost the war. The fact that a political determination was made erase Haitian freedoms centuries ago and it failed,” Morse says. “The existence of this culture wasn’t supposed to survive. The fact we are here is a political statement in itself. It was supposed to get wiped out. The Haitian bible is in the songs.” “The street is what is going on,” describes the band’s Haitian-American leader, Richard Morse. “Those horns you are hearing, the ra ra horns, those come from the streets. Street celebration. The street is also a point of view, a rhythm, it is a feeling.”
The streets also have ears and can be a dangerous place. Morse’s dialogue is often guarded, you get the sense he is holding back, that someone is listening in on our conversation. “Of course they do, I am a musician, they are listening. I am a high profile guy,” says Morse with great clarity. “If I am singing or saying something that is really pissing you off to the point you are thinking I’ve got to kill this guy, then you are into something.” The atmosphere of fear keeps a lot of musicians quite. Because of RAM’s vocal tendencies, they haven’t had as many offers to play outside their weekly gig at the 19th century gothic-style Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince that Richard Morse has managed since 1987. When asked if he feels he’s being pressured or censored in any way, he says “we haven’t been traveling in a while. We have been gigging in the hotel pretty much for the last few years. I think a lot of people are into self censorship. Self censorship makes more money available.”