By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
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In search of spiritual satisfaction, Beaubrun spent his late teens and early twenties contemplating a number of religions and philosophies, even as he studied business administration in the U.S. for two years. The decision inevitably led him back to his roots, to his family's lakou. (An essential part of Vodou, lakous are reminiscent of communes, in which members trace their heritage and rhythms directly back to the original African tribe from which their ancestors came.) Beaubrun realized that Vodou's underlying message was consistent with the ideals he'd embraced in Christianity. "It's important to see the unity of all religions," he stresses. "Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, the word of Moses, the message of Krishna -- the essence is the same."
While Boukman Eksperyans' social voice is informed by Vodou, the band's music reflects the wide range of artists who Beaubrun and his bandmates were exposed to as children. Beaubrun excitedly recounts how his father returned from a trip to the U.S. in 1963 with a copy of James Brown's Live at the Apollo. "My father told us about this guy on-stage and how he was dancing," recalls Beaubrun. The rising tenor of his voice evokes his initial wide-eyed reaction to his father's account. Beaubrun's interests eventually turned to heavier sounds: Hendrix, Santana, Pink Floyd, and Parliament-Funkadelic are all cited as important influences, and their presence is felt throughout Boukman's work.
It took the mid-1970s breakthrough success of Bob Marley and the Wailers to tie the social and musical strands together. "I found someone who was talking seriously about what is wrong in the world, and telling the people what to do," notes Beaubrun. His musically inclined brother, Daniel, several years younger than Lolo, responded to the Wailers' use of the bass to drive the music home. (Daniel plays several instruments and handles lead and background vocals in Boukman Eksperyans, while also serving as the band's musical director.)
As for the the band itself, its origins trace back to 1978 when Lolo and his wife, Mimerose, set out to explore the spiritual and social implications of Vodou and its attendant system of cooperative lakous. Although Vodou's focus is more on spiritual ends than on the temporal concerns of politics, the Beaubruns' direction necessarily would put them at odds with the policies of then-President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. (The original Boukman was a Vodou priest who sparked the uprising among escaped slaves that led to Haiti's independence from France in 1804.) Vodou spurns materialism in favor of the quest for ginen, a state of enlightenment that comes about when a person's inner nature and outer actions are harmonized. "We want the inside change," says Beaubrun, "but you can't have the inside change without a change in the system, as well. The state has to serve the people, not just the pockets of some people who control the country with their money." That kind of talk got Beaubrun labeled as a troublemaker and a communist.
In 1987 Daniel returned to Haiti for good after having spent the better part of a decade attending school in the U.S. (During that time, he shuttled back and forth between the two countries, bringing with him musical ideas and demo tapes that would help shape the band's sound.) Daniel's wife, Marjorie, also joined the band, and as the roster expanded, the group steadily cultivated a following among the Haitian peasant population in which the Vodou message resounded most strongly. "We continued the work of Bob Marley on another level," says Beaubrun.
Though authorities were mindful of Boukman's growing popularity -- the 1980s were marked by wiretaps, arrests, and other forms of harassment against various band members -- the celebrity status of Beaubrun's family provided no small degree of protection, and the group kept a fairly low profile until Duvalier left the country in 1986. Boukman's full impact on Haitian politics wasn't realized until 1990. The song "Ke'-m Pa Sote" ("My Heart Doesn't Leap [I'm Not Afraid])" won the competition in that year's Carnival festival and became a rallying cry for tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets the week after Carnival demanding the departure of Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, who controlled the government at the time. The self-appointed leader left the country within days.
The band was signed by Mango Records that same year, and their debut, Vodou Adaje, was nominated for a Grammy (adaje means to dance while possessed by a spirit). The followup, Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads), released in 1992, spent eighteen weeks on Billboard's then-new World Music chart, including four weeks at the top spot. Besides the band's exuberant sound and the universal appeal of its message, a major factor in Boukman's success has been its reputation for roof-raising performances (as South Florida fans know from the band's appearances at venues such as Bayfront Park and the recently closed Stephen Talkhouse). "They have an excellent sense of showmanship," says Brian Rochlin, a friend of the band and a former editor of Reggae Report magazine. "Lolo has the intensity of Marley, but can also bounce across the stage as if he were Prince."
The band has toured relentlessly A North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia A although the clash of cultures Boukman occasionally has experienced has led to some strange scenes. In New York, for instance, wary policemen drew their guns on two fans who had been escorted outside a club after being possessed by Vodou spirits during a Boukman performance; in a Denver parking lot, Beaubrun was drawn into a lengthy discussion of the differences between Vodou and Satanism with a fairly hostile Christian fundamentalist. Overall, however, manager Behrman says the band has been well received. "People's response to the Vodou aspect has been understanding," he says, "even sympathetic."