By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Under the pinkish lights, Manno Charlemagne's features looked exaggerated. Somehow too real, fans would later say, his stubborn brow and crooked grin casting the doubts of a ghostly caricature. For one thing, the singer wasn't scheduled to go on for another three hours. Quite out of the blue he had wandered on-stage, tuned his acoustic guitar, and filled ®MDNM¯Carol City's Studio One 83 with a gentle baritone rumble. Scurrying soundmen looked on in confusion. But to the small congregation huddled around him, the unannounced warm-up was classic Manno.
Haiti's pre-eminent voice of freedom, Charlemagne has spent most of his 43 years staging surprise attacks on the popular consciousness. Raking tyrants over his jagged lyrics. Shoving dignity down the throats of a vast underclass. Inciting the people to justice. Not the sort of work that benefited from advance publicity.
Still, there was something to his prelude that reeked of the paranormal, especially to loyal fans: Manno Charlemagne was alive. For the past four months, since military coup leaders pulverized Haiti's nascent democracy, the singer and activist had been suspended in what amounted to a rumor-induced coma. Updates on his status fired through the Haitian communities of Miami and New York. Arrested. Beaten. Released. Arrested.
Several times he had been reported dead.
Backstage, Charlemagne himself projected an air of fevered anguish. He had hoped, after all, that this first public concert of 1992 would commemorate the rebirth of Haitian liberty, not his own rebirth as an exile. At the same time, he could hardly downplay the surreal events that led to his December 29 arrival at the Miami International Airport. Indeed, anyone party to his recollection of the odyssey, rendered in spurts of Creole and English, might well have concluded that Charlemagne had lost his mind on the short flight over.
One minute he was murmuring about Bobby De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, the next about former attorney general Ramsey Clark. His chronology skittered from talk of a bogus $20,000 debt to an upcoming cameo in Eddie Murphy's new movie. All of this he draped in a tale of diplomatic cloak and dagger that seemed to implicate half the diplomats in the Western Hemisphere.
"I was held prisoner, you see, by the fraudulent government of Haiti and the United States embassy. Yes, a strange story," he observed, receding into the haze of a dressing room. "But all of it true."
In Haiti they call Manno Charlemagne mistik, loosely translated as, "one who is not killed easily." It is a title he shares with his friend Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest-turned-president who survived at least four attempts on his life before coup leaders chased him into exile. Nobody knows for sure how many times Charlemagne has evaded assassins, only that he lives like a cat: impossible to track down unless he wants to see you.
Born and reared in the urban slums of Port-au-Prince, Emmanuel Joseph "Manno" Charlemagne dropped out of Catholic school in ninth grade, unable to afford further education. He took up guitar and by eighteen was known in the capital for his stirring songs of protest. A decade later, in 1978, Charlemagne released a debut album. In 1980 he was expelled from the country for criticizing Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's regime. He settled in New York City, received a green card, and traveled extensively, performing live shows, railing against Duvalier, and producing three albums.
In 1986, after Duvalier's fall, Charlemagne returned to Haiti a hero and quickly organized a youth group and choir in his old neighborhood, Carrefour. Charlemagne's music, taped from pirate radio stations and covertly circulated during his exile, now openly demanded social justice and hammered away at the shifting cast of cutthroats who controlled the country. In 1988 soldiers ransacked his one-room house and initiated a series of death threats that forced him into hiding.
Foreigners groping to capture Charlemagne's mythic role in Haitian culture often compare him to Bob Marley. In fact the Haitian has played a far more formative, and risky, role in his nation's frail political evolution than Marley ever did in Jamaica. His verses, set to intricate acoustic melodies, document acts of injustice so topical they are sometimes performed no more than a half-dozen times. "Manno speaks for the poor and the illiterate who cannot find the truth in books," explains Marcus Garcia, a long-time friend and editor of Miami's Haiti en Marche weekly newspaper. "When he sings, he does not make metaphors. If he sees a murder, he calls the man a murderer. He is a light for the youth, a leader of the folk culture that is the basis of a resistance against the government."
For a brief time following Aristide's landslide victory on December 16, 1990, Charlemagne, an ardent champion of the priest, found himself in the curious role of a government booster. He even served as an unofficial minister in Aristide's cabinet, an assignment that ended abruptly nine months later, when a military junta overthrew Haiti's first freely elected president.