These Roots Were Made for Talking
It was last summer and local band Lavalas was playing the Orange Blossom Lounge in Ft. Pierce, another booking in an obscure out-of-town venue they were told attracts a Haitian crowd. In a video of the concert you can see a few disinterested patrons of undetermined nationality standing around what turned out to be a divey neighborhood bar.
As the band picks up the pace of the cow-skin congas and electric guitars, a bare-chested Haitian man in hot-pink-fringed Clamdiggers builds a fire on the floor in front of the stage. The beat of the drums visibly ripples through his body as he lies across the fire, walks on a board of nails, rolls around on broken bottles. The man then eats a beer glass, taking big bites and munching away like it was a crisp apple before swallowing all the shards, chasing it with a brew.
After this hypnotic display, the man disappeared, leaving the owner of the bar dumbstruck and demanding to know who the hell was going to pay for her floor. The members of the band are still looking for the guy. After all, it could be a good act; sort of a vodou version of Jim Rose's Lollapalooza circus sideshow.
Such reactions to Lavalas's music are welcomed by the band, and expected. The group plays Haitian roots music A the rhythms of vodou ceremonies and rara, the music of street festivals, mixed with rock, reggae, sometimes rap, sung in Creole, parables that carry political and spiritual messages. In Haiti it is often called lakou music, after the extended-family homes common there A symbols of roots and tradition. Vodou music (Haitian musicians have stopped using the "voodoo" spelling A with its derogatory Hollywood-produced connotations A in favor of other ways of writing the phonetic Creole word) has been kept alive through generations of drummers. The ancient beat goes directly to the bloodstream, the rock groove keeps it pumping, and roots music rapidly whips most crowds into a celebratory frenzy that brings new meaning to the term "trance dance."
"Listen, this music is hot," growls Bob Florentine, who plays congas for Lavalas, nodding his head and grinning madly. "Really hot."
Roots music is the sound of revolution. In the late Seventies, Haitian musicians began a search for their tribal rhythms, and found vodou to be the native sound that could replace compas, the commercial merenguelike dance music commonly heard on the island. (Vodou had been experimented with in the Fifties, when jazz artists combined its rhythms with compas. That ended when Duvalier came to power and those musicians fled the island.) Many found inspiration in Bob Marley's fight for freedom and in the soul sounds of James Brown. Like reggae in Jamaica or the Tropicalia movement in Brazil, roots music has become a political force in the face of repression.
In Haiti, soldiers have used tear gas to quiet crowds at concerts given by Boukman Eksperyans. Two radio stations that persisted in playing a song by the group RAM were closed by the government. Embraced by ousted president Jean-Bertrande Aristide, roots music is reviled by the military rulers who have persecuted members of the dozens of roots bands there, forcing them into exile, beating them, and, sometimes, killing them.
"Those of us who play roots music give people energy to resist, and to continue the struggle," says Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun, Jr., of Boukman Eksperyans. "The concert becomes a rally. Sure we have problems, and that shows in the strength of our music. What we represent in Haiti are the roots and the spirit of ginen, the will to live. We have to go forward, to revolution. Ours is a message of love, truth, and justice. We have to talk. We will not let people shut our mouth."
On the title track of their self-produced cassette, Zombi, Lavalas pays homage to fallen musicians while offering a sobering view of the stereotypical symbol of their country's popular culture, the walking corpse. "Many people who die in the streets are not buried...The dead do not get up, the dead do not get up," the chorus warns.
"In Haitian society the music that we're playing is evil," explains Toto Puntsha, the group's gravel-voiced lead singer, who often punctuates his lyrics with a devilish laugh. Puntsha, who is 22 years old and came to live in Miami two years ago, has been singing roots since he was twelve. He has recently returned after six months in Haiti A for weeks he was prevented from leaving after a short visit. "The government tells us that this music is evil. These are the roots of the next generation. My kids will grow up to think of this music not as evil, but as ours."
Off the island, the music's sound has attracted commercial attention. The first album by Boukman Eksperyans was nominated for a Grammy. "Ibo Lele" ("Dreams Come True"), a song by RAM, is included on the soundtrack of Jonathan Demme's film Philadelphia. Headed by Richard A. Morse, a Princeton graduate and veteran of New York's Eighties music scene who sings in English as well as Creole, RAM plays the Stephen Talkhouse this weekend.
Young exiles are taking the music and its message with them. There are roots groups in the exile communities of Boston, New York, and, naturally, Miami.
Lavalas first got together on 55th Street in Little Haiti, where drummers often hang out and play. The group features Bob Florentine and Michel Louis on congas, Marco Cicerone on bass, Josh Mentor on drums, and Andrew Yeomanson, a Canadian-born guitarist who is the only non-Haitian in the group. Unlike other roots bands, Lavalas does not use a drum machine to augment their percussion-heavy sound, supplemented instead by shifting guitar riffs influenced by James Brown, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, and various African and Haitian players.
Yeomanson, the band's designated driver, shows up in his orange VW van, decorated with gourds, beads, and photos of Zappa, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, carrying Mamatambou (Mother Drum), the white-wood lead conga, in the back. He swings over to North Miami to pick up Florentine and Mentor, then to a housing development in Little Haiti where Puntsha lives. Cicerone is away on a cruise ship, filling in for his cousin in a band that plays "Yellowbird" to the tourists, and Louis is home. Also absent is Arnod, a wooden cross with a rubber skull attached, the group's talisman, which travels with them. The van pulls up at the Chez Moy International Restaurant for a dinner of pork chunks, fried fish, plantains, and Choucoune soda, "the fruit champagne."
They say they're thinking of changing the name of the band. Christened by a politically ambitious singer who is no longer with them, Lavalas is named for Aristide's party. It keeps people away, the musicians say. "They think they're going to get bombed or something," explains Florentine.
Gigs aren't easy to come by, anyway. The Haitian clubs in Miami, where couples go to dance close, play compas. "And what we play isn't exactly seduction music," laughs Yeomanson. "It's revolution."
Lavalas has found that their best audience turns out when they play with one of the big Haitian bands that comes through town, like the explosive concert at the Talkhouse a few weeks ago that was packed with local exiles. They will close for RAM on Sunday.
The Haitian members of Lavalas see their mission as popularizing roots music in Miami's exile community. They don't think about going back to Haiti, and they don't think it's important for what they are trying to accomplish. "You have to have heart to play this music, and you have to play it wherever there's a Haitian community," says Mentor. "It's the same thing here as in Haiti. It's the message that matters."
Over in Haiti it sounds like the spirits are screaming. Or maybe someone is running a vacuum cleaner over the phone lines. All circuits to Haiti are blocked. When service is restored the next day, RAM leader Richard Morse, who runs the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, says he's been using hunks of ice to cool the air inside. No electricity at all on the left side of the city, he explains.
Morse went to Haiti in 1985 from New York, where he played with a band called the Groceries. His mother and grandfather are Haitian singers, and his father is from "three generations of Princeton University and Greenwich, Connecticut." He learned about vodou rhythms and Haitian folk culture, founding RAM with his wife Lunise. Morse spends most of his time around the Hotel Oloffson, where RAM and other roots bands give concerts and where many foreigners, like Jonathan Demme, stay.
The band is recording a second independent album and should begin their first U.S. tour at the upcoming New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Morse is especially excited about going to the birthplace of the blues. "I've written a new song called 'Boat People Blues.' It's got vodou drums and blues guitar," he says. "We mix it all up and it works because it all comes from one another. Where did rock and roll come from? Rhythm and blues. Where did that come from? Vodou. In Louisiana, vodou was considered part of the slave revolt, and it was camouflaged in blues and jazz so that it could still exist and grow. Remember, rock was called the Devil's music. What was happening to the girls going crazy when they saw the Beatles? They were possessed."
RAM and Lavalas perform beginning at 9:00 p.m. Sunday at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $15.