Rasin in the Sun

Last week Haitian refugees made headlines again, and once again Jacquecine Etienne had to explain. For some of Etienne's American colleagues in the Miami law office where she works as a paralegal, the whole notion seemed incomprehensible: Haitians journeying from their homeland to Miami in a leaky freighter -- with drowning a very real possibility -- and then, once here, risking deportation. Etienne, on the other hand, understood perfectly. "People will take their freedom by any means necessary," she explains. "Why would you not risk your life for freedom?"

The 27-year-old Etienne is accustomed to expressing such passionate sentiments. She keeps abreast of ongoing developments in Haiti, where, despite a democratically elected government, the nation continues to be plagued by economic adversity and rampant crime, prompting people to leave in search of a better life. When not working at her day job, she sings and dances with Ayabonmbe. The ten-member group, headed by Etienne's bassist husband Marc Joseph, calls their fusion of palpitating vodou drum rhythms with rock, reggae, and blues guitar "the music of liberation."

Ayabonmbe plays rasin (roots music), known as the sound of popular protest and social revolution in Haiti. Its driving conga rhythms can be traced to the religious rites African slaves brought to Haiti, slaves who in secret nocturnal ceremonies used drumbeats as a call to arms in the revolt that resulted in Haiti's independence in 1804. Its lyrics reflect the contemporary concerns of people from one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere.

Rasin was virtually ignored under the successive dictatorships of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier (1957-71) and his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier (1971-86), when American music and merenguelike compas dominated Haiti. But in the late Seventies Haitian musicians in search of spiritual enlightenment began experimenting with the ritual rhythms, mixing them with reggae and rock guitar riffs. Rasin was censored under the military dictatorship that held sway in Haiti in the early Nineties, and was celebrated by the advocates for social and political change who supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Spearheaded by the group Boukman Eksperyans, the rasin movement has since given way to younger bands such as Kanpech and Koudjay, whose music has increasingly moved toward rock and pop while maintaining the social message. Kanpech, which has played in Miami on several occasions, and Koudjay, winners of the 1998 carnival competition in Port-au-Prince, share a bill with Ayabonmbe tonight (Thursday) at Power Studios.

Ayabonmbe -- named for the war cry that native Arawak Indians sounded against the Spaniards who arrived on the island they called Hispaniola in the Fifteenth Century -- was founded in 1991 by local Haitian singer Kiki Wainwright, who has since left the band. Some of the group's current members grew up in Miami or New York City. Others are more recent arrivals to the United States, including "Patou" Rodney Lindar and Kelly Cajou, two singers who were formerly with the Haitian group Ram. Lead guitarist Evans "Kiki" Colas has toured with Chaka Khan, and lead percussionist Alit Nozile has recorded with the Fugees.

Marc Joseph, age 44, who has lived here since 1977, stresses that the musicians' varied experiences mirror those of the diverse Haitian audiences they perform for in Miami, people for whom music plays an important role. "Music is one of the greatest outlets Haitians have in Miami. It's one of our biggest imports," he says. "It's something that unites the diaspora. If you have light skin or dark skin, if you can read or can't read, if you're Catholic or Baptist, if you're socialist or a former Duvalier supporter, music is something that ties us together as people."

Joseph points out that as a Haitian band living in this country, Ayabonmbe would logically embrace American musical genres more fully than the group's counterparts in Haiti. While rasin bands back home tend to make use of standard rock, pop, and reggae riffs, Ayabonmbe also incorporates jazz, blues, and even country and western guitar chords into its songs. Joseph cites Carlos Santana as one of his major influences, and not only for his fiery guitar work. Santana the band's early bilingual repertoire has served as a model for Ayabonmbe's own mix of Creole and English.

"If you have a message and it can't be understood, what's the use?" reasons Etienne. "English is part of our day-to-day lives here; we don't want to exclude. It helps make rasin accessible and commercial. If you can't sell albums, how are you going to get your message across?"

One of the band's English numbers is "Refugee," which Joseph wrote in 1982. A mental health counselor as well as a musician, Joseph was working with refugees at the Krome detention center when one of them hanged himself. The song, set to a reggae beat, tells that story. Ayabonmbe's newest English song, as yet untitled, recounts how Haitians in Miami must bear the responsibility of supporting their children and other relatives still living in Haiti -- a very real situation for several band members. "If the money doesn't come, they will literally starve," contends Etienne.

While Ayabonmbe addresses the current concerns of the Haitian immigrant community, the group also wants to preserve cultural traditions. On-stage they dress in batik dashikis and sarongs. Their shows begin with a welcoming ceremonial dance that honors a vodou spirit; during the dance they flap their outstretched arms and move their bodies in a serpentine motion.

"We don't practice vodou, but we understand the relevance that vodou has in our culture," notes Etienne. Accordingly, the band's percussionists have learned 25 of the 121 extant Haitian ritual rhythms.

Etienne, who came to Miami at age seven, credits her mother with teaching her about Haitian pride. She learned to speak Creole and to do folkloric dances as a child. And she recalls that, because Haiti is such a poor place, Haitian kids would sometimes be made fun of at school; some Haitian students would lie and say they were Jamaican. "Someone didn't educate those children the right way," she says.

In addition to performing at Power Studios each Thursday night and playing at Haitian community events such as the recent Roots and Culture Festival, the members of Ayanbonmbe teach Haitian dance Saturday afternoons at the Performing Arts Network (PAN) in Miami Beach. Among the current crop of students is the Josephs' four-year-old daughter Marcine, who seems to have taken naturally to the beat of the drums.

"It's really wonderful to see her pick up on it," Jacquecine Etienne says proudly, adding that her daughter's talent is easy to understand. "Well, she is Haitian."

Ayabonmbe performs tonight (Thursday) with Kanpech and Koudjay at Power Studios, 3701 NE 2nd Ave; 573-8042. Doors open at 9:00 p.m. Admission is $12.

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Judy Cantor