These Roots Were Made for Talking

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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."

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Judy Cantor