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.

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Judy Cantor