Tangled Roots

Summoning musical spirit at Rasin '99

Yellow bandannas with black letters bearing the Western Union logo graced nearly every head, neck, or waist at Rasin '99, held early this November at Bayfront Park. The fans of Haitian roots music -- a music based on the rhythms and traditional refrains of Haitian vodou -- wore the sponsor's free bandannas like the head scarves of so many oungans, the vodou holy men. To the jazz-softened vodou percussion of Simbi, the Swedish band that opened the festival, a round-cheeked young mother with rich mahogany skin set about the business of tying scarves around the heads of her three small children. To stretch the symbolism, the knot in each scarf tied together the far-flung roots of Haitian music and of the Haitian people themselves. Wire-transfer companies such as Western Union move money through the air, connecting Haitians in Miami, New York, Montreal, and Paris to Haitians back home. Rasin runs the island's roots back around the world in the opposite direction: to Miami, New York, and yes, you read it right, even to Sweden.

The primarily Haitian audience at Rasin '99 responded to Simbi's vodou fusion with polite enthusiasm, cheering blond, bearded band leader Stan Kallman's halting Kreyol as heartily as they greeted his announcement of the next band, Haiti-based roots group Kanpech. The intensity in the amphitheater grew slowly and steadily while the DJ played recorded roots and compas hits between sets. Suddenly, as the members of Kanpech approached their microphones in the half-light and the DJ put on one last song, the crowd went wild. Over the loudspeakers vibrated the synthesized bass topped with a twelve note treble nursery rhyme that begins "Kool Non" ("Chill Out"), the song that won the mayor's first-place prize at the 1996 Haitian Carnival. "Yes, rude boy, the original King Posse," the recorded voice of "Haitian Buju" (Robenson Joseph) announces in English, introducing the band whose outright imitation and occasional innovation on Jamaican raggamuffin and African-American hip-hop has won over the rhythmic hearts of the Haitian public.

For the next eight minutes, the audience sang and moved as one to the recorded track. One young mother leapt onto the bench behind her, pulling her children up one by one and guiding them through the choreography called for by the song: "Chill out, chill out," jump to the right; "chill out, chill out," jump to the left; put your right hand on your hip and shake, shake, shake. Meanwhile Kanpech waited awkwardly in the dark for the song to end.

Summoning spirits and musical vibes at Rasin '99
Tony Savino
Summoning spirits and musical vibes at Rasin '99

Although Rasin '99 featured some of Haiti's best roots bands, no live performance by any group generated as much unbridled enthusiasm as the canned broadcast of "Chill Out." As a possible explanation, King Posse taps a very different set of roots than do the other bands on the bill. Rather than Haitian vodou, King Posse's sound is driven by Jamaican dancehall reggae. When the band finally took the stage in the flesh, later in the night, the five young singers borrowed the presentation style of highly commercial U.S. boy bands like the Backstreet Boys, with their manager calling out one by one each singer's stage name to rounds of cheers. The names themselves indicate the derivative impulse of King Posse's music: The gravel-voiced Haitian Buju mimics the Jamaican Buju Banton; Boudha Ranks (Samuel Antoine) shares a vocal style with Jamaican dancehall star Shabba Ranks; Black Alex (James Pierre Alex) cops the R&B style dominating the charts in the United States. In striking contrast to the most successful ragga and hip-hop acts in Jamaica and the United States, however, King Posse avoids any outlaw associations and shies away from sexual boasts. Instead, in "The Bible," Boudha Ranks riffs on his Jamaican namesake's hit "Mr. Lover Lover" by singing in English: "Jesus love-a, love-a, love-a, love-a me." King Posse's take on gangsta rap, "Nick Nack," draws force not from the rhythms of the street, but rather from the nursery rhyme: "Nick, nack, paddywack, give a dog a bone.\Don't give me nothing but a microphone."

But "Chill Out" is something entirely different, a new Haitian style that King Posse calls "compas muffin." With the accent on the muffin, King Posse's fusion of the light synthesized touch of Haitian compas with harder Jamaican rhythms makes for squeaky clean fun. Unlike many of the most popular roots songs, which fire coded political commentary at corrupt leaders, "Chill Out" tickles listeners with simple choreographic cues and nonsense syllables. One dedicated groupie hanging backstage at Rasin '99 declared that "traditionally Carnival is about people fighting each other, but 'Chill Out' teaches people to have a good time. Don't argue. You can enjoy yourself."

King Posse's "Don't worry, be happy" message has an obvious appeal in a nation such as Haiti, with its violent history and uncertain future. Not every musician on the island, however, has the same license to chill. Sharing the bill with King Posse, Richard Auguste Morse and his self-titled band RAM have run into problems with that nation's revolving powers that be. The military leaders who ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 persecuted the politically conscious RAM, often halting performances with violent threats. Upon his return to power in 1994, Aristide favored the band, but as the promises of the new Haitian democracy fell short, RAM made new enemies. Manno Charlemagne, the same mayor who awarded King Posse the carnival prize in 1996, kept RAM out of Carnival the following year. King Posse's 1997 carnival song "They Return," includes a dedication to "Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and Ti-Manno," the popular name for Charlemagne, who before entering politics had endeared himself to the Haitian people as a singer whose music opposed earlier dictators.

In Morse's eyes, however, while the names may have changed, the social terrain hasn't. Backstage at Rasin '99, he reflects on the impact that the changing politics in Haiti has had on RAM's music, saying simply: "Today we sing more about hypocrites." He pauses and then looks pointedly at the young men from King Posse, eagerly devouring beans and rice from Pollo Tropical at the next table. He adds sharply: "Then you have what we call the 'palace bands.' They're the ones who play for whoever's in the palace."

Whatever might be surmised about King Posse's political bedfellows, the band's trademark happiness could not be further from RAM's fusion of the righteous protest of traditional vodou and the raucous rage of British and American punk. The mixed-race son of prominent Haitian folklore singer Emerantes de Pradines and the grandson of popular music pioneer Auguste de Pradines, Morse grew up with vodou music at home and punk on the streets of his native New Jersey. "We use vodou and vodou uses us," says Morse, referring as much to his belief that the vodou deities have kept him alive despite the many attempts on his life, as to his desire to harness vodou as an innovative musical force. Morse promises RAM's next release, currently being recorded in Haiti, New Jersey, and a studio in Homestead, will be "huge." For this vodou-punk project, Morse has recruited Andrew Weiss, formerly bass player with the hardcore outfit the Rollins Band, and more recently a producer for the tongue-in-your-face rock outfit Ween.

The explosive potential of a vodou-punk collision could be seen and heard onstage at Rasin '99. In place of the exuberance unleashed by a mere recording of King Posse, the Rasin audience swayed in thoughtful attention throughout RAM's set. Lead vocalist and former folklore dancer Lunise Morse flowed like liquid across the front of the stage. In the wings rabid RAM fans complemented her movements with the ritual movements dictated by the drums. Meanwhile Morse stood firmly planted by his microphone, his Jersey white-boy stance repeated by Weiss on guitar. The drums beat raboday rhythms, while the guitars and keyboards picked out a ragged raw-edged ska, making a noise as palatable to disgruntled American youth as it is troublesome to Port-au-Prince politicians. Along the far-flung routes of Haitian music, roots get tangled.

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