Fusion of the Spirits
Musical rebellion American style too often amounts to little more than bawdy lyrics, guitar noise, body piercings, tattoos, ambiguous sexual identity, and ultimately meaningless tussles between artists and the recording industry. Madonna manipulates images of women, and risks upsetting those who already had written her off. Pearl Jam takes on Ticketmaster, temporarily endangering the band's megabucks concert grosses. Marilyn Manson tries to shock us all, with his efforts yielding diminishing returns.
Meanwhile the members of Boukman Eksperyans, acclaimed exponents of Haiti's vodou culture, have risked their very lives for their art. Their songs have been banned, their concerts canceled, their fans hassled. And worse.
The group, founded 21 years ago by singer and songwriter Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun, Jr., has tempted imprisonment and death at home by playing populist anthems such as 1990's "Kem Pa Sote" ("You Don't Scare Me"). That tune was the theme song for a countrywide general strike that led to the removal of dictator Prosper Avril from power. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected president, was inaugurated in February 1991, and then overthrown by the military in September of that year.
The group's fans were attacked with tear gas when they began singing the lyrics to "Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads)," the title track from the band's Grammy-nominated 1992 album, during a 1993 concert in Port-au-Prince.
In June 1994 Michel-Melthon Lynch, the group's long-time bassist and percussionist, died of meningitis at age 25 after a package of antibiotics intended for him disappeared from the Port-au-Prince airport. And that July Beaubrun and his bandmates attempted to follow a European tour with U.S. concerts. They were blocked in London, owing to an order from President Clinton that barred many Haitians from entering the nation.
Boukman Eksperyans this year is touring in support of Live at Red Rocks, an entrancing document recorded last summer in the inspiring setting of the naturally formed amphitheater in Colorado.
The twelve-piece group, which also includes Beaubrun's wife, Mimerose, a vocalist and highly regarded anthropologist, son Ted on segun tanbou drums, and dancer daughter Laura, plays The Earth N' Us in Little Haiti on August 28. Their performance is part of a multiact bill with Haitian acts Foula, Lucky Pierre, Ayabonmbe, and others. The show, billed as "a concert for the sustainable development of Haiti," has been organized by Operation Green Leaves. Boukman Eksperyans last year played a similar festival sponsored by the same organization, and since 1990 has generally received solid support in Miami, with performances at MIDEM, two editions of Africa Féte, and other concerts.
"It's nice because there are a lot of Haitians coming, and they understand a little bit more the message we are doing," Beaubrun says by telephone from a tour stop in St. Louis. "We have a message -- spiritual, social and political -- for everybody, but the Haitians understand us a little bit more. Haiti is where we're fighting against that establishment, the politicians.
"[Haitians] understand when we say revolution, we're talking about spiritual revolution," he continues. "You have to change yourself to change your world. That's why Miami is a really big base for us. When we go to Miami we usually go to Haitian radio and talk about the condition of Haiti, how we want things to change. Miami is an important place."
Live at Red Rocks, the band's fifth American release and first live album, is another collection of reverberating call-and-response vocals, sung in both Creole and English, and underscored by throbbing African and Caribbean rhythms interwoven with textured layers of guitar and percussion. Critical response and support by world-music radio programmers has been typically enthusiastic. But the old fears remain.
"We are harassed openly during concerts," Beaubrun says. "They just put us out from the Carnival in February. The mayor [of Port-au-Prince] said that our music is too political. I have a radio program where we're talking to the people. We do many demonstrations on the street against many political things. Before, it was terrible. They killed [audience members] in our concerts. Some men came onstage in our concert in 1992, and put a silencer on us, ready to shoot us. Our telephones have been tapped since 1990. The fighting continues."
Beaubrun, a performer of Haiti's popular compas music before he began exploring the religious and cultural roots of vodou, gave Boukman Eksperyans a radical identity from the start. An admirer of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Santana, and Jefferson Airplane, he concocted an appealing blend of roots music with rock and roll. The group's sound incorporates those influences as well as Zairean soukous, Haitian rara, and other rhythms. "Rara makes people dance like crazy," he explains. "And we also put in Ibo, Congo, Bene, and Yoruba. The hip-hop came with the influence of Wyclef Jean. It's a mixing. It's a fusion."
The band's name was borrowed from that of a vodou priest, Boukman, who united slaves and led a revolution against the French colonists. The revolt ended in 1804 with the former slaves victoriously forming the first black republic in the world. Boukman Eksperyans further provoked the ire of authorities by choosing to sing in the sporadically outlawed creole tongue. The group's "Se Kreyo'l Nou Ye (We Speak Creole)" for a while was a favorite of the younger generation.
"It's our language," Beaubrun declares. "We don't have to be ashamed of it. When we were in school, they prevented you sometimes from speaking creole. If you speak French, you'll be accepted by the society; you're somebody, you're in a higher class. We're fighting against that. That's why we did that song."
At Boukman Eksperyans concerts everywhere -- from S.O.B.'s in Manhattan to various South Florida stages -- the show opens with a white-robed priest performing a solemn ceremony, sans the wax dolls and zombies of Hollywood-style voodoo. Exhortations and chanting follow, with the voices and instruments eventually raising the level of onstage excitement and audience enthusiasm to a feverish pitch.
On occasion at Boukman performances, dancers work themselves into trances onstage. It's a reminder of the band's continuing belief in vodou, described by Beaubrun as a way of life as much as a religion.
"When what you're thinking, saying, and doing is one, they call it ginen," he explains. "In our culture it's part of the social part, it's the economic part, and it's politics also. In the social part, it's called lakou, with an extended group of people living together on the land. They practice cooperation. They share a lot of things together. It's different from the capitalism, living in the city.
"Many of us follow Jesus, or Buddha, or Krishna, or Mohammed, or Moses -- all true people who came to Earth," Beaubrun continues. "It's important to us to bring that message of unity, of harmony, to people. We believe in nonviolence. We don't tell people to take arms and get on the streets and shoot. That's not the kind of revolution we're talking about. We're talking about a revolution of love, peace, and justice."
Boukman Eksperyans performs Saturday, August 28, at the Earth N' Us Farm (7630 NE 1st Ave.) in Little Haiti. For more information call 305-644-9000.
"Fêt Farm," By Judy Cantor, August 26
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