His Music Rules in Haiti

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

Several hundred people showed up at the airport koudjay (jam session). As they danced and cheered, Martelly rallied the crowd with a marching cadence from the time of the Haitian revolution. "Grenadier! To the attack!" he yelled. "If anyone dies, that's his business!"

Martelly says he would happily repeat his performance. "I didn't accept [the request to play] because I was Michel Francois's friend," he explains. "I did not accept because it was the army. I went because I did not want Aristide back. I did not want the U.S. to invade. People automatically associate me with the [military] regime. Well, I don't have to defend myself. You want me to be a de facto [supporter of the coup]. I'm a de facto. It's my right. It's my country. I can fight for whatever I believe in."

From a certain angle, Martelly's musical activism can almost be seen as part of a long-standing political tradition in which Haitian musicians have played key roles in social upheaval. In 1791, for example, the pounding of Vodou drums rising from the northern plains signaled the start of the slave revolt that led to Haiti's independence from the French.

Haitians are largely illiterate (fewer than 25 percent can read and write); songs are one of the primary vehicles for ideas about politics, society, religion, and culture to reach the masses. Musicians consequently wield disproportionate influence over public opinion. Unlike Martelly, however, most have tended to side with the powerless.

Among Haiti's legendary troubadours is Auguste de Pradine, Martelly's grandfather. As described by musicologist Gage Averill in his new book A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti, de Pradine was a Frenchman, crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, who made a living in clubs around Port-au-Prince. In the 1920s he began to actively oppose the American presence, penning comic protest songs.

Manno Charlemagne, the current mayor of Port-au-Prince, used folk music to embolden his countrymen in their fight against the Duvaliers and the military regime that followed. Like Martelly, Charlemagne grew up in Carrefour, where he started documenting social injustice in song. By the time he was eighteen, Haitians throughout the capital were humming his tunes of resistance. Charlemagne was forced into exile. He came back to Haiti after Duvalier left in 1986, and once again set about composing melodies for the oppressed. "If Haiti is not a jungle, why then all these beasts?" he asked in a song condemning U.S. complicity with Macoute terror.

In 1988, as Martelly was launching his musical career, soldiers ransacked Charlemagne's one-room house. He spent several years underground, the target of death threats. After the September 1991 coup, Charlemagne was arrested twice. He fled from Haiti with the help of the Argentine ambassador, barely escaping another arrest. During the koudjay against Caputo, Charlemagne was living in exile.

Nevertheless, Charlemagne is reluctant to criticize Martelly, whom he has known for about twenty years and whom he describes as a friend. "We don't have the same political vision," he points out. "But the guy has the right to be a political conservative." Charlemagne notes that other bands besides Sweet Micky were playing for the army and the political elite at the time.

In fact, as Martelly's cousin Richard Morse discovered, it could be dangerous to perform if you weren't in the military's good graces. During 1993 one of RAM's songs, an allegorical ballad called "Fey" ("Leaf"), was embraced by the democracy movement. One night, when RAM was performing the song at Martelly's club, the Garage, one of the police officers in attendance pulled the plug and threatened to arrest the band members. A similar incident occurred later at the Hotel Oloffson.

Morse declines to comment on his cousin's reputation except to note that Martelly does have friends among the military and police. "He's a hard-working musician," he adds. "He does what the public likes. He's got personality on-stage. He creates fans, and he works and takes care of his fans."

Martelly's political sympathies aside, his choice in music alone would still make him a misfit among more socially aware Haitian musicians. Unlike the roots music played by Morse and Charlemagne, which incorporates African rhythms and elements of the Haitian folk and peasant tradition, compas was born in the 1950s and 1960s in middle-class dancehalls. Early compas lyrics occasionally dealt with political and social issues. After Duvalier assumed power, however, any critical musical commentary was stifled.

"Compas has the disadvantage of being linked to the ascendant middle class under Duvalier," observes musicologist Gage Averill. "The lyrics are largely apolitical, and they don't deal with the social realities that the majority of Haitians face. A lot of people would say compas is lighthearted party music that is played when you have dictators in power."

Martelly becomes visibly frustrated when confronted with the comment that he is a Macoute entertainer. "I am a musician," he huffs. "I play for people who pay to get in. I don't care if you are a Macoute, if you are gay or lesbian, if you are a human rights abuser or if you believe in human rights. As a matter of fact, I have been criticized for being a Macoute. But do you know that all the Lavalas [Aristide supporters] are my friends now? They are all begging me to play for them. They are all begging me to write songs for them. Did you know that? So if I do that are they going to start calling me a Lavalas? Am I going to change from Macoute to Lavalas?"

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