The Vodou They Do So Well

The telephone connection crackles with static as Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun, Jr., front man for the Haitian roots band Boukman Eksperyans, shushes the half-dozen children who happily scamper about his father's Port-au-Prince home. "It's 'vacation noise,'" Beaubrun notes lightheartedly, before returning to a very serious discussion of his band's precarious position within the tumultuous environment of Haitian politics for the past seventeen years. "Yeah, we've been aware of the danger, because we started the band with a spiritual focus.... We say that Jesus tells us to put selfishness away from us."

Such a claim normally would invite skeptical hoots, given the prefabricated, market-driven posings of Western pop stars. But Beaubrun's comment is, if anything, an understatement. Consider the scene during a 1994 concert in Port-au-Prince when, in full view of the audience, a Haitian soldier put a gun to the singer's head as Boukman Eksperyans launched into the government-banned song "Kalfou Danjere" ("Dangerous Crossroads"). The group continued playing; the audience members sang the Creole lyrics in Beaubrun's stead (translated: "If you're an assassin, get out of here/If you're a thief, get out of here...Murderers, schemers, thieves/You're heading for a dangerous crossroads"); and the police moved in with tear gas, clubs, and Uzis to break up the show.

The episode was typical of the physical dangers Boukman Eksperyans has faced for much of its existence. But it was also a chilling portent of the trials and tribulations the band would experience through much of 1994. Indeed, the past year has been especially rough for Boukman, despite the reinstatement in October of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's democratically elected president, and more recently, the nearly unanimous critical acclaim that has greeted the release of the band's third album, Libate (Pran Pou Pran'l!) -- in English, Freedom (Let's Take It!).

In May 1994, for example, Boukman bassist-drummer Michel-Melthon "Olicha" Lynch came down with a severe case of bacterial meningitis. Because of the U.S. embargo against Haiti, medicine that had saved Lynch's life during a bout with the illness the previous year was unavailable this time. On June 3, Dan Behrman, the band's Montreal-based manager, couriered a package of antibiotics from the U.S., but the medicine disappeared after it reached the Port-au-Prince airport. Lynch passed away the next day as family, friends, and band members prayed at his side.

Seven weeks later, just having completed a successful tour of Europe and ready to embark on a fifteen-date trek across the U.S., Boukman Eksperyans found itself stranded in London. Days before the band's scheduled flight to New York City, the U.S. government tightened the screws on Haiti's military junta by issuing a stop order on financial transactions involving the two nations. Suddenly the group's plane tickets were useless; visas allowing them to stay in England were valid only through the next day.

Unable to secure a flight back to Haiti from England, manager Behrman called the New York headquarters of Island Records (which distributes Boukman's work on its Mango Records imprint) and discreetly arranged for the band members to fly to Jamaica as undocumented aliens. They spent the next several months stashed away in a "safe house" in Jamaica's Blue Mountains -- no telephone, no electricity, no running water, out of touch with their family and friends -- while Behrman tried to put the necessary papers in order. Inquiring reporters were fed a steady diet of misinformation about the band's whereabouts. "Jamaica had a lot of Haitian boat people," explains Behrman, "and the Jamaicans, at the request of the U.S. government, had set up a ship that served as a floating refugee camp. Island was afraid that [the Jamaican government] would want to stick the members of Boukman on the ship."

Behrman pauses to consider the band's penchant for courting trouble. "Sometimes it's freaky," he notes. "But let me tell you, I prefer working with this kind of situation than with a band that worries about the size of the holes in their jeans. These people live what they sing, and sing what they live."

What Boukman Eksperyans sings and plays is an exotic blend of traditional Haitian rasin (roots music) -- built upon and around the multiple rhythms laid down by three Vodou drums -- and such diverse elements as African and Western melodies, gospel choruses, and the thoroughly modern sounds of bass, electric guitar, synthesizers, and drum machines. What they live is Vodou, the intricate Haitian belief system closely associated with that nation's vast peasant population; in the West, Vodou often has been caricatured with images of devil dolls and zombies. "Vodou is not a religion," emphasizes Lolo Beaubrun. "It's a way of life. For so much time, there was propaganda against Vodou. It's important for people to see the truth."

Ironically, Beaubrun himself was born into the ranks of Haiti's cultural elite, whose middle- and upper-class members have embraced Westernization and rejected their country's Vodou heritage. His father is director of the National Theatre and a popular comic actor often referred to as "the Haitian Bill Cosby." Lolo, now 38 years old, recoiled from his Protestant upbringing at an early age. "Since I was little, I saw that many of the people I knew who were going to church every Sunday were hypocrites," he says. "They didn't practice the word of Jesus." (Beaubrun is quick to note his father is open-minded, adding, "We don't have a problem to express ourselves in Vodou.")

In search of spiritual satisfaction, Beaubrun spent his late teens and early twenties contemplating a number of religions and philosophies, even as he studied business administration in the U.S. for two years. The decision inevitably led him back to his roots, to his family's lakou. (An essential part of Vodou, lakous are reminiscent of communes, in which members trace their heritage and rhythms directly back to the original African tribe from which their ancestors came.) Beaubrun realized that Vodou's underlying message was consistent with the ideals he'd embraced in Christianity. "It's important to see the unity of all religions," he stresses. "Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, the word of Moses, the message of Krishna -- the essence is the same."

While Boukman Eksperyans' social voice is informed by Vodou, the band's music reflects the wide range of artists who Beaubrun and his bandmates were exposed to as children. Beaubrun excitedly recounts how his father returned from a trip to the U.S. in 1963 with a copy of James Brown's Live at the Apollo. "My father told us about this guy on-stage and how he was dancing," recalls Beaubrun. The rising tenor of his voice evokes his initial wide-eyed reaction to his father's account. Beaubrun's interests eventually turned to heavier sounds: Hendrix, Santana, Pink Floyd, and Parliament-Funkadelic are all cited as important influences, and their presence is felt throughout Boukman's work.

It took the mid-1970s breakthrough success of Bob Marley and the Wailers to tie the social and musical strands together. "I found someone who was talking seriously about what is wrong in the world, and telling the people what to do," notes Beaubrun. His musically inclined brother, Daniel, several years younger than Lolo, responded to the Wailers' use of the bass to drive the music home. (Daniel plays several instruments and handles lead and background vocals in Boukman Eksperyans, while also serving as the band's musical director.)

As for the the band itself, its origins trace back to 1978 when Lolo and his wife, Mimerose, set out to explore the spiritual and social implications of Vodou and its attendant system of cooperative lakous. Although Vodou's focus is more on spiritual ends than on the temporal concerns of politics, the Beaubruns' direction necessarily would put them at odds with the policies of then-President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. (The original Boukman was a Vodou priest who sparked the uprising among escaped slaves that led to Haiti's independence from France in 1804.) Vodou spurns materialism in favor of the quest for ginen, a state of enlightenment that comes about when a person's inner nature and outer actions are harmonized. "We want the inside change," says Beaubrun, "but you can't have the inside change without a change in the system, as well. The state has to serve the people, not just the pockets of some people who control the country with their money." That kind of talk got Beaubrun labeled as a troublemaker and a communist.

In 1987 Daniel returned to Haiti for good after having spent the better part of a decade attending school in the U.S. (During that time, he shuttled back and forth between the two countries, bringing with him musical ideas and demo tapes that would help shape the band's sound.) Daniel's wife, Marjorie, also joined the band, and as the roster expanded, the group steadily cultivated a following among the Haitian peasant population in which the Vodou message resounded most strongly. "We continued the work of Bob Marley on another level," says Beaubrun.

Though authorities were mindful of Boukman's growing popularity -- the 1980s were marked by wiretaps, arrests, and other forms of harassment against various band members -- the celebrity status of Beaubrun's family provided no small degree of protection, and the group kept a fairly low profile until Duvalier left the country in 1986. Boukman's full impact on Haitian politics wasn't realized until 1990. The song "Ke'-m Pa Sote" ("My Heart Doesn't Leap [I'm Not Afraid])" won the competition in that year's Carnival festival and became a rallying cry for tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets the week after Carnival demanding the departure of Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, who controlled the government at the time. The self-appointed leader left the country within days.

The band was signed by Mango Records that same year, and their debut, Vodou Adaje, was nominated for a Grammy (adaje means to dance while possessed by a spirit). The followup, Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads), released in 1992, spent eighteen weeks on Billboard's then-new World Music chart, including four weeks at the top spot. Besides the band's exuberant sound and the universal appeal of its message, a major factor in Boukman's success has been its reputation for roof-raising performances (as South Florida fans know from the band's appearances at venues such as Bayfront Park and the recently closed Stephen Talkhouse). "They have an excellent sense of showmanship," says Brian Rochlin, a friend of the band and a former editor of Reggae Report magazine. "Lolo has the intensity of Marley, but can also bounce across the stage as if he were Prince."

The band has toured relentlessly A North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia A although the clash of cultures Boukman occasionally has experienced has led to some strange scenes. In New York, for instance, wary policemen drew their guns on two fans who had been escorted outside a club after being possessed by Vodou spirits during a Boukman performance; in a Denver parking lot, Beaubrun was drawn into a lengthy discussion of the differences between Vodou and Satanism with a fairly hostile Christian fundamentalist. Overall, however, manager Behrman says the band has been well received. "People's response to the Vodou aspect has been understanding," he says, "even sympathetic."

Now, it would appear, the extreme dangers faced by the members of Boukman Eksperyans are behind them. Military strongman Raoul Cedras left the island in October; Aristide -- a Catholic priest whose sympathetic understanding of Vodou's place in Haitian society has been misrepresented and exploited by his opponents in both Haiti and the U.S. -- has been reinstated as president. Libäte, released in April, has garnered overwhelmingly positive press. Boukman's songs are back on Haitian radio stations, and fans can once again hum the melodies to those songs in public without risking a beating at the hands of the police. In January the band played a free concert in Port-au-Prince for an enthusiastic crowd numbering more than 100,000.

But true to his unswerving idealism, Beaubrun refuses to celebrate these developments as a triumph for Haiti's long-oppressed masses. "I'm glad Aristide is in power, because he's made many important decisions like disbanding the army," Beaubrun contends. "But things have only changed on the surface. We want a complete change. The revolution we're talking about has to be a change of the whole life. We need a new system, an alternative to capitalism and communism that makes the connection between the material and spiritual."

Given the continued influence of Haiti's well-entrenched, moneyed elite, as well as the knee-jerk reaction that Beaubrun's message of social reform is sure to evoke in Haiti's imposing western neighbor, it may be a long wait. Then again, as Beaubrun points out, "Haiti is a magical country. You can see somebody on the street, maybe he shines shoes, and by Western standards he would be nothing compared with someone who has a lot of money. But in Haiti he can be a great priest, he can be a healer, he can be someone with good power. Anything can happen."

Boukman Eksperyans performs as part of Africa Fàte on Monday, July 3, at Marlin Gardens, 12th Street and Collins Avenue, Miami Beach; 673-5202. Other scheduled acts include Baaba Maal, Femi Kuti, and Oumou Sangare. Gates open at 6:00 p.m. Admission costs $10.


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