Manno Charlemagne

"Ramsey asked me would I stay and help this guy," recalls John Brittain, one of three delegates left behind. "I said sure. But on the way back to the hotel it dawned on me. I said, `What the fuck am I doing in Haiti? It's Christmas time. Everyone else is going back to their families. And here I am in rush-hour traffic, trying to smuggle a folk singer past armed soldiers.'

"When Manno didn't show up at the airport, we figured he was being kind of paranoid," adds Brittain, president of the National Lawyers Guild. "I mean, here we were with our American arrogance. But when we got back to the Argentine embassy, their second-in-command told us that if Manno had left, soldiers would have shot him and anyone riding with him. We said, `Oh shit. This is much heavier than we ever thought.'"

On Friday morning Argentine diplomats, weary of the headaches Charlemagne had caused, sent Haitian Foreign Minister Jean Simonese copies of the performer's bank receipts to prove their guest's debt was paid. Simonese promised to call back that afternoon. He never did. By evening Brittain was furious. Hoping to bring additional pressure to bear, the lawyer called the U.S. embassy. He says an official there told him they could do nothing about Charlemagne's situation, because he was not an American citizen.

"I found that hard to swallow," Brittain says. "The U.S. embassy runs the show down there. I imagine if they wanted Manno out of Haiti, he would have been on the next plane. They didn't do a thing for him. His life was in danger and they didn't lift a finger."

Next, Brittain set up a dinner meeting with Paul Tardiff, a Canadian serving as the Organization of American States representative in Haiti. They met in the swanky Montana Hotel, a favorite among foreign VIPs because of its topnotch security. Tardiff listened to his story, walked over to a nearby phone, and rang up Simonese. The two men talked for some minutes. The foreign minister, it seems, doubted the authenticity of the bank receipts but wouldn't have a chance to verify them until Monday. The Americans, however, were slated to leave Sunday.

Back at the Argentine embassy residence, Charlemagne received the news glumly. He mentioned the huge concert at Manhattan's Hunter College, scheduled for the next day, at which he was the headliner. And, in the eerie candlelight that illuminated the blacked-out house, he mumbled something about a casting call. "The whole scene was so bizarre," recalls Carol Halebian, a photographer who was left behind with Brittain. "Here we are holed up in this dark house, with soldiers milling around outside, and Manno pulls out a letter from Eddie Murphy saying, `Hey, I want you to come be in my movie.'" Director Jonathan Demme had helped engineer the offer, hopeful it would provide added impetus for Charlemagne's release.

"Ultimately," Halebian says, "we decided to leave, because the Argentine ambassador gave us his word that he would get Manno out of the country. So we finally said goodbye and got on the plane, and I'm sitting there thumbing through Entertainment Weekly - a publication I only read on airplanes - and what's the first article I turn to? A story about the imprisoned Haitian singer Manno Charlemagne. Too weird."

In a nation so notorious for misplaced trust, the Argentine promise didn't sound like much. But true to his word, a week later, on December 29, Ambassador Orlando Sella accompanied Charlemagne to the airport, escorting him all the way to the gate and gazing, in obvious relief, as the Caged Bird of Haiti flew off into the night. He arrived in Miami hours later.

"Yes, for the time I will be in Miami." In the backstage clamor at Studio One 83, Manno Charlemagne issued the statement quietly, like a concession.

Local leaders spoke of the singer's presence in transcendent terms. "When he was released, part of our struggle was released, too," said Rolande Dorancy, director of the Haitian Refugee Center. "To us, he is a preacher who has been delivered to safety." The estimated 3000 fans who crammed into the sweaty hall sang his older ballads word for word and hooted merrily at newer works, which lacerated such recent villains as coup leader Raoul Cedras. They clucked knowingly at his declaration that the U.S. embassy did nothing to help him.

Though Charlemagne spoke gamely of staging a concert in support of the "victims of political repression in the camps at Guantanamo Bay," his eyes remained focused but distant. A few days after the January 12 show, he headed off to New York, where a coterie of friends from his previous exile awaited, along with Eddie Murphy's casting supervisor. Later, he said, he would zip up to Canada for a couple of shows, and perhaps meet up with his friend Aristide somewhere. Soon, he hoped, he would reunite with his far-flung family. His green card should prevent that from posing a problem.

Editor Marcus Garcia, Charlemagne's old friend, believes the jet setting is a distraction: "We call Manno terroir. It means he cannot live far from Haiti. Haiti is the source of his spirit. Of his art. If he wanted, Manno could wait until it is safe to go back to Haiti. He could become an important politician if he wanted to choose this life. But that is not Manno."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Miami Concert Tickets