His Music Rules in Haiti

Two years ago, when a Haitian magazine identified entertainer Michel Martelly as one of the most popular men in Haiti along with then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Martelly responded by unveiling his political platform. "If I am elected president, I will perform nude on top of the National Palace," he jested in an interview in Haiti Demain, a monthly published in Port-au-Prince.

At the time, Martelly was living in a condo on Miami Beach, a long way from the snow-white National Palace and its Dante-esque history. He had a regular gig at the Promenade on Ocean Drive, where his band Sweet Micky performed compas, rhythmic Haitian dance music. He was 34 years old and could pack the house, converting the dance floor into a hypnotic whirl of bodies responding to his groove. In between songs, Martelly bantered with the audience. He delighted in shocking his fans -- mostly conservative Haitian emigres -- with crude comments about women or provocative remarks about politics. He made no secret of his support for the Haitian military, which had overthrown Aristide in a bloody coup in 1991.

By the time the article was published in April 1995, Aristide had been reinstated by U.S. forces and plans were being laid for a democratic transition. Martelly released a new song, "Prezidan," an exuberant ditty that called for a president who played compas. "Let's talk about this," the song begins. "Everybody thinks we're joking.... Some friends say that Micky is losing his head."

The lyrics refer to Martelly's mock candidacy, an idea that most Haitians find outrageous not only because of the entertainer's reputation as a hedonist playboy, but also because of his well-known enthusiasm for the military coup. "This is Sweet Micky at the army headquarters," Martelly raps in the song. "This is the president at the National Palace."

The tune caught on. Haitians who opposed Aristide delighted in its cheerful nihilism. Others dismissed the song's political overtones and focused on its infectious beat. Whenever Martelly spent time in Haiti, he was hailed on the street as "prezidan-mwen!" (my president). The greeting was a joke, but as it was repeated by thousands of people, Martelly started to enjoy the sound. That summer Manno Charlemagne, a fellow musician and a long-time friend, was elected mayor of Port-au-Prince. Clark Parent, a senator and a folksinger, was running to succeed Aristide. Why not Martelly?

In Miami, Martelly changed the message on his answering machine. "This is the president," he blustered. "I'm not here right now. Leave your name. I'll get back to you."

It is 40 minutes shy of midnight on a recent Sunday night, and cars have just begun to pull into the parking lot of the Days Inn near Miami International Airport. Martelly is relaxing in the cool night air, waiting for his guitar player, Alex Tropnas, who is late for their show at the motel's Spirit lounge. There are three people in Sweet Micky. The third, Carrie Legaganeur, is substituting for bass player Welton Desire, who remained in Haiti for want of a U.S. visa.

Martelly has wrapped a scarf around his head Arab-style and is wearing a college T-shirt and jeans. A parade of arriving fans vies for his attention. Pausing, he greets each person individually. He claps the men on the back and beams at the females, touching arms, waists, shoulders, allowing his hand to linger long enough for the women to know the contact is not accidental.

Off-stage flirtation is as much a part of the Sweet Micky experience as is on-stage obscenity. Martelly makes sure his fans feel appreciated as well as entertained. "People come here and pay their money, and they want to have fun," Martelly explains. "You'll see. Once we get on-stage, we are going to be going crazy. People will be going crazy. It's our way of doing things, because we believe that after a week of stress, especially in the Haitian community, where everything is trouble, everything is problem, you need to give them the most you can so they can be happy and forget."

Martelly's voice is low and relaxed, like a cat's purr. He communicates in an improvised English that is enriched by the rhythms of his mother languages, Haitian Creole and French. When he performs he usually mixes the slang of all three languages, producing an upbeat babel of vulgarity.

Tonight's show starts clean. The crowd is made up of middle- and upper-middle-class professionals. The women are in tight cocktail shifts, flowing Indian prints, oversize polo shirts. The men sport oxford cloth, tight T-shirts, cotton blends. They are business people specializing in import-export, health-care workers, teachers, police officers on their night off, secretaries. They wait easily as Martelly moves behind his electronic keyboard, on which he plays a compas that sounds like a slowed-down Dominican merengue. With each song, the energy level rises. Soon nearly everyone is dancing. Couples rock closely together, umbilically bound to the beat.

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Elise Ackerman