The Vodou They Do So Well

The telephone connection crackles with static as Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun, Jr., front man for the Haitian roots band Boukman Eksperyans, shushes the half-dozen children who happily scamper about his father's Port-au-Prince home. "It's 'vacation noise,'" Beaubrun notes lightheartedly, before returning to a very serious discussion of his band's precarious position within the tumultuous environment of Haitian politics for the past seventeen years. "Yeah, we've been aware of the danger, because we started the band with a spiritual focus.... We say that Jesus tells us to put selfishness away from us."

Such a claim normally would invite skeptical hoots, given the prefabricated, market-driven posings of Western pop stars. But Beaubrun's comment is, if anything, an understatement. Consider the scene during a 1994 concert in Port-au-Prince when, in full view of the audience, a Haitian soldier put a gun to the singer's head as Boukman Eksperyans launched into the government-banned song "Kalfou Danjere" ("Dangerous Crossroads"). The group continued playing; the audience members sang the Creole lyrics in Beaubrun's stead (translated: "If you're an assassin, get out of here/If you're a thief, get out of here...Murderers, schemers, thieves/You're heading for a dangerous crossroads"); and the police moved in with tear gas, clubs, and Uzis to break up the show.

The episode was typical of the physical dangers Boukman Eksperyans has faced for much of its existence. But it was also a chilling portent of the trials and tribulations the band would experience through much of 1994. Indeed, the past year has been especially rough for Boukman, despite the reinstatement in October of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's democratically elected president, and more recently, the nearly unanimous critical acclaim that has greeted the release of the band's third album, Libate (Pran Pou Pran'l!) -- in English, Freedom (Let's Take It!).

In May 1994, for example, Boukman bassist-drummer Michel-Melthon "Olicha" Lynch came down with a severe case of bacterial meningitis. Because of the U.S. embargo against Haiti, medicine that had saved Lynch's life during a bout with the illness the previous year was unavailable this time. On June 3, Dan Behrman, the band's Montreal-based manager, couriered a package of antibiotics from the U.S., but the medicine disappeared after it reached the Port-au-Prince airport. Lynch passed away the next day as family, friends, and band members prayed at his side.

Seven weeks later, just having completed a successful tour of Europe and ready to embark on a fifteen-date trek across the U.S., Boukman Eksperyans found itself stranded in London. Days before the band's scheduled flight to New York City, the U.S. government tightened the screws on Haiti's military junta by issuing a stop order on financial transactions involving the two nations. Suddenly the group's plane tickets were useless; visas allowing them to stay in England were valid only through the next day.

Unable to secure a flight back to Haiti from England, manager Behrman called the New York headquarters of Island Records (which distributes Boukman's work on its Mango Records imprint) and discreetly arranged for the band members to fly to Jamaica as undocumented aliens. They spent the next several months stashed away in a "safe house" in Jamaica's Blue Mountains -- no telephone, no electricity, no running water, out of touch with their family and friends -- while Behrman tried to put the necessary papers in order. Inquiring reporters were fed a steady diet of misinformation about the band's whereabouts. "Jamaica had a lot of Haitian boat people," explains Behrman, "and the Jamaicans, at the request of the U.S. government, had set up a ship that served as a floating refugee camp. Island was afraid that [the Jamaican government] would want to stick the members of Boukman on the ship."

Behrman pauses to consider the band's penchant for courting trouble. "Sometimes it's freaky," he notes. "But let me tell you, I prefer working with this kind of situation than with a band that worries about the size of the holes in their jeans. These people live what they sing, and sing what they live."

What Boukman Eksperyans sings and plays is an exotic blend of traditional Haitian rasin (roots music) -- built upon and around the multiple rhythms laid down by three Vodou drums -- and such diverse elements as African and Western melodies, gospel choruses, and the thoroughly modern sounds of bass, electric guitar, synthesizers, and drum machines. What they live is Vodou, the intricate Haitian belief system closely associated with that nation's vast peasant population; in the West, Vodou often has been caricatured with images of devil dolls and zombies. "Vodou is not a religion," emphasizes Lolo Beaubrun. "It's a way of life. For so much time, there was propaganda against Vodou. It's important for people to see the truth."

Ironically, Beaubrun himself was born into the ranks of Haiti's cultural elite, whose middle- and upper-class members have embraced Westernization and rejected their country's Vodou heritage. His father is director of the National Theatre and a popular comic actor often referred to as "the Haitian Bill Cosby." Lolo, now 38 years old, recoiled from his Protestant upbringing at an early age. "Since I was little, I saw that many of the people I knew who were going to church every Sunday were hypocrites," he says. "They didn't practice the word of Jesus." (Beaubrun is quick to note his father is open-minded, adding, "We don't have a problem to express ourselves in Vodou.")

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