It’s hard to make a phone call to Haiti without inquiring about the current political crisis and the riots in the streets. Yet it doesn’t take but a minute or two to be reminded there is plenty more to that Caribbean nation.
“It’s a wonderful place here, with a wonderful tradition and wonderful people. They treat you like family,” says Richard A. Morse, leader of the Haitian band RAM (his initials). He founded it three decades ago when he purchased and took up residence in an old Port-au-Prince Victorian inn known as Hôtel Oloffson, where RAM also performs weekly. “I mean, I’m not telling everyone to get on a plane and come on over right now,” he adds.
For now, there is an easier way to experience Haiti. This week, Haitian music aficionados, including many from South Florida's Haitian diaspora, will fill the North Beach Bandshell for a RAM concert sponsored by Miami’s Rhythm Foundation.
“Haitians are thirsty for Haitian music that comes straight out of Haiti, so when we come to Miami, we often play for Haitians,” says Morse, promising a great show even for those who aren’t familiar with the music. “Haitians have a very strong culture that involves drums, rhythms, songs, and parables. There’s a lot of messages in the songs.”
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His band represents a fusion of all manner of genres, but Morse notes its characteristics stem from the Haitian people’s experience — from their ancestral roots in Africa, through the abominable industry of slavery, Haiti’s legendary fight for independence, and in spite of countless manifestations of neocolonial imperialism and internal power struggles.
During colonial times, Haiti was the economic epicenter of French colonial power, relying on human exploitation to produce everything from sugar and coffee to tobacco and wood. But in 1804, the people forced to labor in these in industries — many of them directly off boats from Africa — removed their shackles in what would become the world’s first successful rebellion of enslaved peoples.
Music was one way Haitians maintained their sense of unification and resilience when times got tough.
“Some of the Haitian rhythms that RAM performs come from West Africa — Ibo, Congo, Dahomey, Nago, Mahi, and Yanvalou. Some of the rhythms are indigenous to Haiti — Banda, Petwo, and Rabòday,” Morse explains. “Essentially, these influences are what we as a band thrive off of. We take these rhythms, songs, and traditions and we just apply them to our generation — which is the electric guitar, the drum kit.”
Some of the band's rock roots are drawn straight from Morse’s experience growing up in Woodbridge, Connecticut, just outside New Haven. His father, Richard M. Morse, was a professor of Latin American studies; his mother, Emerante de Pradines, was a Haitian folklorist, singer, choreographer, and professor. Both taught at Yale.
“Everyone who does these adaptations applies their generational message to it," Morse says. "In my mother’s generation, they added acoustic guitar and flute.”
While his mother was all about infusing her son with his cultural roots, she was a little surprised when he pursued a degree in anthropology at Princeton and then moved to Haiti to make music and run a hotel.
“Everybody in the family got nervous," he says. "They were thinking, Oh, Lord, what’s happened to Richard? How come he’s not becoming a lawyer or becoming a senator? But music is my life, it was my mom’s life, and it was my grandfather’s life. I came to Haiti to take these traditions and make music.”
The move came at a transformative time in the music industry. It was the late '80s, just as the punk and New Wave scenes were splitting into the genres that would become known as alternative and world, the latter gaining mainstream popularity through initiatives such as David Byrne’s Luoka Bop label and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. Prior to the mass dissemination of music via the internet, their goal was to promote global artists who might otherwise have gone unnoticed in North America or Europe.
Three decades later, there are plenty of debates about how to promote and produce folklore, and by whom.
“I avoided the stigma of cultural appropriation by following in my Haitian mother’s footsteps, taking traditional ceremonial aspects of Haitian traditions and making them available to the general public in the form of entertainment," Morse says. "My grandfather Kandjo — Auguste de Pradines — was also an entertainer and songwriter who sang his own compositions as well as traditional songs.”
Inevitably, though, as someone who grew up outside the island nation, he sometimes feels like an outsider.
“When I get a lot of pressure, I remember what my mother told me. She said that because she is Haitian, I have the right to be here and to continue this musical legacy,” says Morse, who married a Haitian — Lunise Morse, RAM’s lead singer — and together they've raised two children in the Caribbean country.
And along with knowing the rhythms and melodies of Haitian music, he understands the messaging, which often takes the form of parables.
“They can be interpreted personally or socially, giving the general population insight into a particular struggle they may be facing," Morse says. "The messages are wonderful messages, and if those messages make you feel uncomfortable, then you have to take a look at yourself.” .
Haitian Kreyol isn’t the easiest language to learn, but the sound of Haitian music relays all sorts of universal emotions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for songs to start as a release of frustration and turn into a celebration. That’s especially true at RAM’s performances at Hôtel Oloffson.
For the past five years, Morse has had to run the show on batteries and generators. He says he’s not sure if the lack of electricity is due to faulty neighborhood infrastructure or a powerful person who doesn’t like what he and his bandmates present to the public. What he does know is that living in Haiti has taught him to create parties for emotional release.
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“Fortunately, I came here for percussion and drums, and you can beat the drums whether you have electricity or not,” he says.
And though his show at the North Beach Bandshell will be plugged in, Morse says his goal is to do what he does at the Oloffson: create a lively, melodic rara.
“Rara is normally a street procession, where thousands of people could be dancing down the street,” Morse says. “We added it to the band because it just makes your body move. It makes you feel euphoric. It’s a spiritual experience.”
RAM. 7 p.m. Saturday, October 26, at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202. Tickets cost $25 via rhythmfoundation.com.