His Music Rules in Haiti

Sweet Micky's provocative music moves Haitians with an infectious beat and political overtones

After graduating from high school and unsuccessfully attempting to study engineering, Martelly enlisted in the Haitian Military Academy. After impregnating a general's goddaughter, he says, he was forced to drop out. He spent a semester lying low in Lakewood, Colorado, studying at Red Rocks Community College and working in a grocery store. He returned to Haiti in 1986, just as Jean-Claude Duvalier was heading into exile.

"When I married Michel he was basically a bum," his wife Sophia says affectionately. The world of the Haitian elite is small, and the couple had been friends for years before they decided to marry. Were it not for Martelly's lack of direction, it would have been an acceptable match. Sophia, who is four years younger than Martelly, comes from a respectable family in the city of Gonaēves, a hundred miles north of Port-au-Prince. But both mothers objected to the union on the ground of skin color: Sophia and Martelly have light, golden-hued skin and vaguely Negroid features. In their mothers' eyes, the marriage would not improve the race, achieved by blending light and dark). "It's stupid, but that's Haiti," Sophia sighs.

Evading parental disapproval, the couple moved to Miami in 1987. "We really started from scratch," Sophia remembers. They furnished their apartment with discards they dug out of Dumpsters. For the first few months, until they could afford a second car, Martelly would drop Sophia off at her job as a word processor at 5:30 in the morning while he went off to work on a construction site. She had to wait for three hours until the office opened.

Sophia offers up these memories of hard times the way a doctor might hang a diploma on the wall. She wants you to know that she and her husband have earned their middle-class comforts. Martelly may be wild on-stage, but in his personal life he is strait-laced and conventional. Sophia, for example, has a curfew. Martelly does not allow her to chew gum or leave the house without a bra. He complains if she sits with her legs uncrossed.

After a year in Miami, they returned to Haiti. In 1988 Martelly was asked to play at El Rancho casino, owned by Joe Namphy, the brother of Gen. Henri Namphy, who served as president after Duvalier's departure. Martelly's cousin Richard Morse, the leader of the Vodou jazz group RAM and the proprietor of the Hotel Oloffson, a trendy watering hole for foreign filmmakers and journalists, worked for Namphy. From El Rancho Martelly moved to a hotel in the outlying suburb of Kenscoff. His combination of dance tunes and irreverent patter began attracting followers. In 1989 he cut his first album, Ou la la, an instant hit.

By the time Aristide was elected in 1990, the Martellys were doing well enough to feel threatened by the former priest's fiery rhetoric. Preaching that it was unfair for the wealth of the country to be controlled by so few, Aristide sought to empower Haiti's destitute majority. The Martellys still shudder when they recall one particular speech in which Aristide reportedly predicted that the bourgeoisie would know the pain of rocks under the sun -- meaning that they would start to feel the economic hardship suffered by the majority of Haitians.

On January 6, 1991, a month before Aristide's scheduled inauguration, Roger Lafontant, a former chief of the Tonton Macoutes, attempted to overthrow the government. Haitians rioted in support of their newly elected president, rampaging across the country. At least 50 people died.

As a horrified Sophia watched from her bathroom window, she says she heard one of her employees tell an angry crowd, "No one needs to touch Madam Michel, I will give her the necklace myself." The man, who worked as an errand boy and roadie for the band, was referring to the practice of tossing a burning tire over a victim's head, a favored mode of mob execution. Sophia used to give the employee her husband's clothes after he tired of wearing them. That day, she noted, he was wearing Martelly's shoes, pants, and shirt. The crowd banged on her gate. But it was securely locked, and eventually the throng dispersed.

Other incidents occurred that spring and summer. One day while Sophia was driving through a crowded downtown market, she ran over two tubes of toothpaste that had fallen from a stall. Sophia offered to pay for the damage, but the stall owner walked over and slapped her. The woman's parting comment still rings in Sophia's ears: "I just wanted the satisfaction of having smacked a white woman."

Sophia was raised to hate Duvalier. Her grandmother had been detained by Papa Doc, and two members of her family on her father's side had been executed. But given the alternative of Aristide and his obstreperous followers, the former dictatorship looked increasingly benign. Neither she nor her husband lamented the coup when it came seven months later.

In fact, when Port-au-Prince police chief Lt. Col. Michel Francois asked Martelly a year and a half later to perform at a demonstration protesting the arrival of Dante Caputo, the U.N. special representative to Haiti, Martelly agreed to play for free. Caputo was negotiating Aristide's return; the purpose of his trip was to arrange for the deployment of a small team of U.N. human rights observers. Once they were in place, talks between Aristide and the military government were to begin.

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