Haiti's pre-eminent voice of freedom, Charlemagne has spent most of his 43 years staging surprise attacks on the popular consciousness. Raking tyrants over his jagged lyrics. Shoving dignity down the throats of a vast underclass. Inciting the people to justice. Not the sort of work that benefited from advance publicity.
Still, there was something to his prelude that reeked of the paranormal, especially to loyal fans: Manno Charlemagne was alive. For the past four months, since military coup leaders pulverized Haiti's nascent democracy, the singer and activist had been suspended in what amounted to a rumor-induced coma. Updates on his status fired through the Haitian communities of Miami and New York. Arrested. Beaten. Released. Arrested.
Several times he had been reported dead.
Backstage, Charlemagne himself projected an air of fevered anguish. He had hoped, after all, that this first public concert of 1992 would commemorate the rebirth of Haitian liberty, not his own rebirth as an exile. At the same time, he could hardly downplay the surreal events that led to his December 29 arrival at the Miami International Airport. Indeed, anyone party to his recollection of the odyssey, rendered in spurts of Creole and English, might well have concluded that Charlemagne had lost his mind on the short flight over.
One minute he was murmuring about Bobby De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, the next about former attorney general Ramsey Clark. His chronology skittered from talk of a bogus $20,000 debt to an upcoming cameo in Eddie Murphy's new movie. All of this he draped in a tale of diplomatic cloak and dagger that seemed to implicate half the diplomats in the Western Hemisphere.
"I was held prisoner, you see, by the fraudulent government of Haiti and the United States embassy. Yes, a strange story," he observed, receding into the haze of a dressing room. "But all of it true."
In Haiti they call Manno Charlemagne mistik, loosely translated as, "one who is not killed easily." It is a title he shares with his friend Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest-turned-president who survived at least four attempts on his life before coup leaders chased him into exile. Nobody knows for sure how many times Charlemagne has evaded assassins, only that he lives like a cat: impossible to track down unless he wants to see you.
Born and reared in the urban slums of Port-au-Prince, Emmanuel Joseph "Manno" Charlemagne dropped out of Catholic school in ninth grade, unable to afford further education. He took up guitar and by eighteen was known in the capital for his stirring songs of protest. A decade later, in 1978, Charlemagne released a debut album. In 1980 he was expelled from the country for criticizing Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's regime. He settled in New York City, received a green card, and traveled extensively, performing live shows, railing against Duvalier, and producing three albums.
In 1986, after Duvalier's fall, Charlemagne returned to Haiti a hero and quickly organized a youth group and choir in his old neighborhood, Carrefour. Charlemagne's music, taped from pirate radio stations and covertly circulated during his exile, now openly demanded social justice and hammered away at the shifting cast of cutthroats who controlled the country. In 1988 soldiers ransacked his one-room house and initiated a series of death threats that forced him into hiding.
Foreigners groping to capture Charlemagne's mythic role in Haitian culture often compare him to Bob Marley. In fact the Haitian has played a far more formative, and risky, role in his nation's frail political evolution than Marley ever did in Jamaica. His verses, set to intricate acoustic melodies, document acts of injustice so topical they are sometimes performed no more than a half-dozen times. "Manno speaks for the poor and the illiterate who cannot find the truth in books," explains Marcus Garcia, a long-time friend and editor of Miami's Haiti en Marche weekly newspaper. "When he sings, he does not make metaphors. If he sees a murder, he calls the man a murderer. He is a light for the youth, a leader of the folk culture that is the basis of a resistance against the government."
For a brief time following Aristide's landslide victory on December 16, 1990, Charlemagne, an ardent champion of the priest, found himself in the curious role of a government booster. He even served as an unofficial minister in Aristide's cabinet, an assignment that ended abruptly nine months later, when a military junta overthrew Haiti's first freely elected president.
Hopeful Aristide would regain power, the residents of Carrefour rallied against the coup. "Manno's neighborhood was one of the few areas that showed any resistance, putting up barricades and burning tires," Garcia says. "Of course, the military accused Manno of being the leader." On October 11, a truckload of troops pulled up to his home, roughed him up in front of his family, and hauled him off to jail. His wife, Chantel, went into hiding with the couple's baby son, Ti-Manno, and later fled to the island of Guadeloupe.
Terrified, Charlemagne's sister called Haitian radio stations in Miami and New York. Word quickly spread that the singer had been arrested, tortured, and possibly killed. But the torture, Charlemagne says, was predominantly psychological. On October 13, before he had been formally charged, a group of soldiers told him his execution was scheduled for 2:00 a.m. But a dispute between soldiers forestalled the killing. "They would say, `We are going to kill you at this time,'" Charlemagne recalls, grinning. "Then they would get worried and call it off." Eventually the prisoner was relocated to the Penitencier National, the monstrous prison built by U.S. Marines who occupied the island from 1915 to 1935.
A week later, on October 18, Ernst Mallebranche, a Haitian human rights lawyer, secured his release. As he left the prison with his wife and the attorney, a squad of men in civilian clothes accosted Charlemagne at gunpoint. "After that everyone was sure he was dead," Garcia recalls. "When the death squads come in civilian clothes, they're serious. They don't want to be traced to the military." That weekend the international rumor mill worked overtime, generating a ghoulish array of scenarios.
By this time, however, Charlemagne's original arrest had triggered a deluge of lobbying efforts stateside. Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and local groups including Miami's Haitian Refugee Center peppered Haitian and U.S. officials with phone calls and telegrams. Haitian-American newspapers and radio stations called for a release of the "Caged Bird of Haiti." A week after his second arrest, Charlemagne again was set free.
A third arrest was planned, but this time a sympathetic soldier tipped off Charlemagne before he could be cuffed again. With the French embassy already harboring several terrified members of Aristide's cabinet, he fled to the Argentine embassy residence. Built into the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince in the posh suburb of Petionville, the two-story house was protected, as Charlemagne puts it, "by one little guard shack." Four days later, a platoon of soldiers broke into the Argentine embassy residence, but were rebuffed by security personnel before they could harm Charlemagne.
That's when the Hollywood lobby kicked into high gear.
Back in 1986, Jonathan Demme traveled to Haiti to check out the country's visual arts scene. He fell in love with the place. The director, whose stylish chiller Silence of the Lambs made him Tinseltown's reigning wunderkind, returned a year later to film a documentary about Haiti's quest for democracy. "It was immediately obvious that the movement's spoken literature was song and that Manno Charlemagne was at the heart of the movement," Demme recalls. The trick was finding him.
"Because of his criticism of the police and military, he moved around quite a lot," says Demme, whose works include the 1984 Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense. "I didn't know if I'd ever get to meet him. Then one day he called me at my hotel. Just like that. With typical candor he said, `Yes, you can film me. Yes, I will sing for you. In fact, you can drive me to my concert today. I figure if I'm with some blancs [foreigners], the military won't stop me.'" Demme was formally introduced to Charlemagne while the singer showered in his outdoor bathroom, and the crew set off across the island.
"Manno was so charismatic, so gifted, that the stuff on him produced some of the strongest material in the film," says Demme. He titled his 1987 work Haiti Dreams of Democracy and later helped produce Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti, a compilation of Haitian music. The filmmaker met Charlemagne again last year, when he visited Haiti hoping to shoot a documentary about Aristide. (Aristide rejected the request.)
When he learned of Charlemagne's recent imprisonment, Demme immediately formed Americans for Manno, an ad hoc group of film industry luminaries "intended to show U.S. and Haitian officials that Manno's captivity was being monitored in a high-profile way," Demme says. On the day Charlemagne went into hiding at the Argentine embassy residence, the group sent a letter of protest to Jean-Jacques Honorat, the military's provisional prime minister.
Honorat, the former executive director of the Haitian Center for Human Rights, responded with a missive noting that Charlemagne had been jailed legally, for arson and inciting violence, and that he could not leave the country without paying a $20,000 debt owed to the Banque de la Republique d'Haiti. "Untrue," Charlemagne claims. "The director of the bank himself said I could leave and pay later."
Determined to keep the pressure on, Demme faxed a petition to Honorat demanding Charlemagne and his family receive safe passage out of the country. Among the 82 signees: Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Spike Lee, Lou Reed, Bono Vox, Jerry Garcia, Tom Cruise, and David Byrne. Additional copies went to George Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Alvin Adams.
The results were imperceptible. Charlemagne remained cut off from family and friends through November and early December, armed soldiers and Tonton Macoutes perched outside the residence like vultures. "What shocked me was that officials of the United States would ignore the plight of this exceptionally gentle, decent human," says Demme.
"It's very simple," Charlemagne growls. "The United States did not want me to leave because of their part in the coup."
Dr. Paul Farmer placed the call on the night of December 15, and because the voice on the other end of the line sounded scared, he didn't recognize it at first. "I'd never heard Manno like that. He is a man known for his fearlessness," says Farmer, who spoke with Charlemagne throughout his captivity. "Throughout the whole ordeal, he kept turning the focus away from himself, talking about the safety of other prisoners. But on that night, I could hear the bullets going off outside. He sounded worn down and frightened."
Farmer, an instructor at Harvard Medical School who has spent much of the past decade administering medical care in Haiti's hinterland, first became acquainted with Charlemagne through contraband bootlegs of his music. "His songs were incredibly ballsy," Farmer says. "The people loved them because he wasn't afraid to take shots at the elite and the military." Eventually Farmer befriended the performer and enlisted his help teaching AIDS awareness to Haitian-American teen-agers while Charlemagne was living in exile. If Charlemagne was worried, Farmer knew, there was good reason.
While Farmer steadied his friend, Ramsey Clark spent the evening of December 15 a few miles away, lying on a hotel bed in Port-au-Prince, trying to get some sleep. The former U.S. attorney general had come to Haiti to lead an inquiry into the September 25 coup, just as he had done in Panama after the 1989 U.S. invasion. The initial signs were not promising. Throughout the night, soldiers emptied machine guns into the sky, an obvious attempt to quell any protests planned for the first anniversary of Aristide's election.
The next three days, spent touring mass graves and documenting human-rights abuses, were equally grim. Contrary to the figures proffered by the military's puppet government, which claimed that no more than 200 people had died during the coup, Clark's delegation estimated the death toll at 2000 to 3000. (Amnesty International recently put the figure at more than 1500.) "The people were afraid to go outside," recalls Kim Ives, a member of Clark's delegation and a reporter for the Brooklyn-based Haiti Progres, America's largest Haitian weekly. "It was like we were back in the days of Duvalier. We spoke to two people in a hospital who were afraid to tell us who shot them."
Charlemagne, plainly, was not alone. He did, however, have a distinct advantage when it came to clout. Clark, informed by Ives of the singer's dilemma, agreed to a meeting on December 18, the day before his scheduled departure. The delegation arrived at the Argentine embassy residence expecting a distraught hostage. They were met instead by an impish man who serenaded them from his balcony, while a film crew from the States filmed the scene.
Throughout his isolation, in fact, Charlemagne had continued to perform for and grant interviews to local and foreign journalists, much to the consternation of Haitian officials and the embassy's beleaguered diplomats. "His songs were beautiful," Ives recalls. "Ramsey was very impressed. He could see why the government wanted to censor this guy. Manno wanted to leave the country with Ramsey. He thought Ramsey would be a kind of shield."
"It was a good meeting," Charlemagne notes. "Ramsey Clark say, `Yes.'"
Thursday morning the delegation swung into action. First stop was the Oloffson Hotel, an oasis for artists and writers that, fittingly, served as the setting for Graham Greene's vicious satire of life under the Duvalier dictatorship, The Comedians. Clark met with the owner, Richard Morse, and compelled him to lend Charlemagne $3000 in cash to cover the final installment on his debt. Next Clark put in a call to the U.S. embassy, hoping to secure a visa for Charlemagne's older son Paul, who had recently been questioned by a gang of soldiers.
"The charge d'affaires at the embassy said, `Hey, kids in Haiti are always getting into trouble with the army,'" Ives recounts. "Ramsey was incredulous." (The Canadian embassy later granted the boy a visa, and he has since relocated there.) Clark, meanwhile, raced out to visit another mass grave and hold a final press conference, arriving downtown just in time to secure a receipt from the bank. He then arranged to rendezvous with Charlemagne at the airport. When the delegation pulled up minutes before its 4:00 p.m. flight, Charlemagne was nowhere to be found. Over the phone, he told Clark that the Haitian authorities had nixed his plan.
"The truth is, I think the Haitian government didn't want Manno leaving with Ramsey Clark. It would be too much of a media hype, like a Jesse Jackson-ish hostage-rescue-type thing," Ives theorizes. With his plane at the gate, Clark, who was due in Panama the next day, quickly formulated a back-up plan.
"Ramsey asked me would I stay and help this guy," recalls John Brittain, one of three delegates left behind. "I said sure. But on the way back to the hotel it dawned on me. I said, `What the fuck am I doing in Haiti? It's Christmas time. Everyone else is going back to their families. And here I am in rush-hour traffic, trying to smuggle a folk singer past armed soldiers.'
"When Manno didn't show up at the airport, we figured he was being kind of paranoid," adds Brittain, president of the National Lawyers Guild. "I mean, here we were with our American arrogance. But when we got back to the Argentine embassy, their second-in-command told us that if Manno had left, soldiers would have shot him and anyone riding with him. We said, `Oh shit. This is much heavier than we ever thought.'"
On Friday morning Argentine diplomats, weary of the headaches Charlemagne had caused, sent Haitian Foreign Minister Jean Simonese copies of the performer's bank receipts to prove their guest's debt was paid. Simonese promised to call back that afternoon. He never did. By evening Brittain was furious. Hoping to bring additional pressure to bear, the lawyer called the U.S. embassy. He says an official there told him they could do nothing about Charlemagne's situation, because he was not an American citizen.
"I found that hard to swallow," Brittain says. "The U.S. embassy runs the show down there. I imagine if they wanted Manno out of Haiti, he would have been on the next plane. They didn't do a thing for him. His life was in danger and they didn't lift a finger."
Next, Brittain set up a dinner meeting with Paul Tardiff, a Canadian serving as the Organization of American States representative in Haiti. They met in the swanky Montana Hotel, a favorite among foreign VIPs because of its topnotch security. Tardiff listened to his story, walked over to a nearby phone, and rang up Simonese. The two men talked for some minutes. The foreign minister, it seems, doubted the authenticity of the bank receipts but wouldn't have a chance to verify them until Monday. The Americans, however, were slated to leave Sunday.
Back at the Argentine embassy residence, Charlemagne received the news glumly. He mentioned the huge concert at Manhattan's Hunter College, scheduled for the next day, at which he was the headliner. And, in the eerie candlelight that illuminated the blacked-out house, he mumbled something about a casting call. "The whole scene was so bizarre," recalls Carol Halebian, a photographer who was left behind with Brittain. "Here we are holed up in this dark house, with soldiers milling around outside, and Manno pulls out a letter from Eddie Murphy saying, `Hey, I want you to come be in my movie.'" Director Jonathan Demme had helped engineer the offer, hopeful it would provide added impetus for Charlemagne's release.
"Ultimately," Halebian says, "we decided to leave, because the Argentine ambassador gave us his word that he would get Manno out of the country. So we finally said goodbye and got on the plane, and I'm sitting there thumbing through Entertainment Weekly - a publication I only read on airplanes - and what's the first article I turn to? A story about the imprisoned Haitian singer Manno Charlemagne. Too weird."
In a nation so notorious for misplaced trust, the Argentine promise didn't sound like much. But true to his word, a week later, on December 29, Ambassador Orlando Sella accompanied Charlemagne to the airport, escorting him all the way to the gate and gazing, in obvious relief, as the Caged Bird of Haiti flew off into the night. He arrived in Miami hours later.
"Yes, for the time I will be in Miami." In the backstage clamor at Studio One 83, Manno Charlemagne issued the statement quietly, like a concession.
Local leaders spoke of the singer's presence in transcendent terms. "When he was released, part of our struggle was released, too," said Rolande Dorancy, director of the Haitian Refugee Center. "To us, he is a preacher who has been delivered to safety." The estimated 3000 fans who crammed into the sweaty hall sang his older ballads word for word and hooted merrily at newer works, which lacerated such recent villains as coup leader Raoul Cedras. They clucked knowingly at his declaration that the U.S. embassy did nothing to help him.
Though Charlemagne spoke gamely of staging a concert in support of the "victims of political repression in the camps at Guantanamo Bay," his eyes remained focused but distant. A few days after the January 12 show, he headed off to New York, where a coterie of friends from his previous exile awaited, along with Eddie Murphy's casting supervisor. Later, he said, he would zip up to Canada for a couple of shows, and perhaps meet up with his friend Aristide somewhere. Soon, he hoped, he would reunite with his far-flung family. His green card should prevent that from posing a problem.
Editor Marcus Garcia, Charlemagne's old friend, believes the jet setting is a distraction: "We call Manno terroir. It means he cannot live far from Haiti. Haiti is the source of his spirit. Of his art. If he wanted, Manno could wait until it is safe to go back to Haiti. He could become an important politician if he wanted to choose this life. But that is not Manno."
Indeed, in the wake of his Studio One 83 show, just two weeks after his precarious escape, Charlemagne already was mulling over a return to his homeland. "Even if Aristide does not return to power, I will go back," he vowed. Here he paused, momentarily speechless, choosing his next words as carefully as an epitaph.
"They have one alternative if I go back. They must kill me.
"I will be a dead man.
"They will have to get rid of me."
He phrased it a few different ways, letting the words poke holes in the shroud of cigarette smoke clutching to his ragged goatee, slipping gracefully into the notion of mortality. "You understand, I have to return home sometime," he said at last, a mistik challenging the truth of his title.