The flyers for the 2000 Rasin Festival boasted a Boukan Ginen "reunion concert." The Haitian roots band appeared to have broken up after performing in the first annual rasin festival in 1996, when bass player Richard Laguerre stayed behind while his mates returned to the island. Boukan Ginen has not released an album since Laguerre's exile and had not played together on the same stage until the festival at Bayfront Park this past November 4. Nevertheless the group insists the claim that this concert is a reunion is a case of false advertising.
With a name that means "fire from Africa" in Kreyol, the socially conscious Boukan Ginen was feeling the heat under each of Haiti's successive leaders throughout the Nineties. An important force in the popular vodou-inspired movement that brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas Party to power, the group vigorously protested the dictatorship that ousted the popular president in 1991. Then Boukan Ginen turned around and protested the restored Lavalas government for failing to make good on it promises. When Laguerre fled to Miami, he joined thousands of his compatriots eager to hear roots music in their newly adopted land.
"We talked about getting [Boukan Ginen] together [so that] maybe we can show them how good they are and how powerful they are," said rasin festival director Raymond Exume in the hours leading up to the concert. Speaking both for fans and for the Center for Haitian Studies, which sponsored the event, he added: "Maybe if we showed [Boukan Ginen] how much they are loved and how much we missed them, maybe we can get them back together again."
The festivalgoers showed Boukan Ginen much love indeed. As though struggling to recognize an old friend, the audience was taken aback for a moment as the singers filed on to the stage, chattering in confusion until frontman Eddy Francois spoke. "I know you remember us," the towering, white-turbaned singer boomed. "Now we've come to rock the roots party." Crossing the stage, a dancer wearing the poof-sleeved dress of the flirty congo dance raised her arms in offering to the vodou gods, the lwa. On her signal Francois intoned the first notes of "Kouman N'ap Fe?" ("What Can We Do?"), a call to political action that had been a Boukan Ginen anthem in Haiti. Hearing the familiar words, the rasin fans erupted into a sing-along that grew louder and louder until the din threatened to flatten the amphitheater.
Typical of the fusion of rebellious rock riffs with the revolutionary rhythms of vodou in Haitian roots music, Boukan Ginen laid an American drum set over the traditional vodou drumming that serves as a call to the gods. Guitars thrust through the traditional percussion lines and across the chanting of the background singers and the melody wailed by Francois. Beside the band a troupe of dancers invited every note into its swaying arms.
The lyrics triggered memories of the troubled times that brought many in the audience to the United States. Two enormous speaker towers cut off the sightlines from the sides of the amphitheater, forcing those who wanted to see the performance into a tightly packed mass directly in front of the stage. The music grew so intense that some of the spectators fainted, and others even went so far as to pran lwa, becoming possessed by one of the gods of vodou. The concert became a ceremony.
Backstage after the performance, Boukan Ginen's fatigue surfaced. Many of the musicians had been camping at the site since 10:00 that morning. The festival lineup changed several times throughout the day, setting up a cycle of mental preparation and letdown as the time for the band's set was postponed again and again. Just before the group finally went on, Francois was so busy handing out business cards and posters touting his solo album due out next January that he misplaced his wallet. The singer was still searching for his belongings when New Times approached and asked the group for a photo. After the shutter clicked, most of the musicians scrambled to catch their next gig in Boston or say goodbye to the other bands.
Standing next to the dreadlocked Laguerre, Francois seemed unsettled by questions about the Boukan Ginen reunion. The frontman removed his glasses and wiped the sweat from his eyes. "It's not like that," he answered, mixing up Kreyol and English in his frustration. "We have always been together," he insisted, raising his voice. "Not two months go by that I don't see Richard or Richard doesn't see Eddy."
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Taking a religious turn, the singer continued, "In spirit we are always strong. Ginen found us." For roots musicians "Ginen" means not only Africa but Africa as the heaven where the descendents of slaves will one day return. Contemporary roots musicians view Ginen as the goal of a political struggle that will deliver the Haitian people from the legacy of slavery and colonialism. Much as Jamaican Rastafarians chant down the white-man's Babylon, Haitian rasin groups sing for a return to the African paradise Ginen. "We are children of God," concluded Francois, stabbing his glasses in the air. "We are the children that Haiti made, and we represent the Ginen music. Nobody reunited us. We reunited ourselves, because we are rasin."
The singer walked away abruptly, leaving Laguerre as the spokesman for the band. Smiling wearily, the bass player tried to hide his own agitation. "I heard that this was supposed to be a reunion performance, and that is not true," he clarified. Instead he attributed Boukan Ginen's so-called separation to outside interests that ranged over the years from musical side projects to marriage to his own exile.
Regardless of whether the band is back together or has never been apart, Laguerre admitted that the reception at Rasin 2000 finally inspired the members to discuss plans for a new album. "By being here tonight," said Laguerre, "I see that there's a calling. The people need leadership." Just as certain members of the audience caught the spirit of the Haitian lwa when Boukan Ginen played, the band caught its own spirit from the audience. "We have something to do," declared Laguerre. "It's like the spirits get us to do their work. That is something that we can't stop doing."
Swooping back into the conversation from across the room, Francois agreed. "Whether we do something together or apart it always represents Boukan," he explained, "because Boukan is us. It is within us."