In Haiti, music brings solace as the country recovers from earthquake
There are no road signs left in Haiti's bruised and battered capital of Port-au-Prince. Zakari, my melancholy driver, tells me that they were all stolen for scrap when Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was ousted in a US-backed coup 25 years ago. "At least we knew where we were going back then," he says wistfully, his body swaying with the potholes. "At least things worked."
Nostalgia is an affair of the heart, not the head. It's inherently unreasonable, and, to an outsider, nostalgia for the Duvalier era is especially baffling. François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his psychopathic son Jean-Claude ruled Haiti from 1959 to 1986, which was ample time for them to break the nation's metaphorical kneecaps and plumb almost unimaginable depths of corruption, brutality and terror. And yet some Haitians now pine for Papa Doc. Perhaps Duvalier nostalgia is akin to Hitler nostalgia. The country may have been ruled by a monster, but at least the trains ran on time.
Nothing much seems to work in Haiti now, at least, nothing born of the fine words of politicians or the pens and laptops of bureaucrats and administrators. The only thing that the Haitian everyman can rely on is that steely coping mechanism that has always saved him from annihilation and despair, that capacity to organise, shape new communities and survive on a dollar a day, the average wage of more than 80 per cent of Haitians.
And then there's music. If hope is a placebo for the soul, then in Haiti, music is the sugar that coats the pill. Not that there's anything wrong with hope, ill-founded or otherwise. Down in the toxic hustle and bustle of the streets, hope is like an antibiotic. It not only protects the mind and spirit, it also actually reinforces the body's ability to resist disease. Where there's hope there's life and where there's life there's music. That's the equation of survival in Port au Prince.
Perhaps that's why Haitians have recently elected Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly as president. Sweet Micky is a star of the local compas pop style, a pelvic potpourri of just about every Caribbean pop sound from son to salsa to zouk to reggae and back again, con brio. Perhaps it's also why the most famous Haitian in the world, the singer-songwriter-hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, is a musician. Jean ended up joining Martelly on the campaign trail at the end of last year, after his own candidacy was disallowed because he hadn't been resident in the country for long enough. The pair would often end their rallies with a song or two, which pleased the crowds no end. Did the voters care that Martelly, aka Tét Kalé or "Baldhead", is a one-time college-drop out who has taken crack and used to perform on stage wearing diapers? Not a bit of it. At least he isn't one of the "tainted ones" - the political, industrial and military elite who have robbed the country blind.
Martelly understood that the way to Haiti's heart is through its ears. And that truism makes total sense of the World Food Programme's choice of Haiti as the first destination for their new goodwill ambassadors, the world-renowned pop duo Amadou and Mariam from Mali in West Africa.
As soon as I was invited to accompany Amadou and Mariam on their ambassadorial visit, tales of horror and danger began to assail me from various quarters. Haiti is a pit of desperation and kidnapping, I was told, the scariest place on earth. I was sceptical, naturally, and, in any case, I figured that if Amadou and Mariam, who are both blind, could handle the place then so could I. Their appointment as goodwill ambassadors also piqued my curiosity. In contrast to Angelina Jolie, Liam Neeson et al, Amadou and Mariam have first-hand experience of hunger and malnutrition. They're African musicians, and their visit to Haiti, an outpost of Africa lost in the Caribbean where music is a vital political force as well as a vehicle for nostalgia or entertainment, had to be significant.
As I was driven from Toussaint Louverture International Airport into the hot, steamy atmosphere of Port-au-Prince, I wondered where all the rubble was from last year's monster earthquake. I could see the tent cities - huge, flapping sprawls of canvas and tarpaulin, emblazoned with aid agency logos - but the streets seemed devoid of earthquake detritus. It was only the next day, when we were taken to a school near the city centre, that I saw those scenes of destruction. There was the presidential palace with its skewed white hat. And there was a hospital listing crazily by 45 degrees. Then we passed a concrete building buckling like a limbo dancer followed by pile of mangled limestone and metal, baking under the tropical sun.
And yet, in front our selective misery-seeking eyes I saw a gangly youngster hawking television aerials by the side of the freeway, a kaleidoscopically painted public bus or "tap-tap" ferrying its passengers to and fro, a group of men shooting the breeze under a palm tree, a dreadlocked man writing a letter on a lectern, a girl beaming a coy smile at nothing in particular. And in the distance there were the mountains, the sea and silky clouds billowing on the blue horizon. Paradise hasn't abandoned Haiti; it just waits patiently in the background.
What grips and entrances you when you arrive here isn't death, poverty or despair; it's the tenaciousness of life. The girls at the Centre Rosalie Javoueh offer giggling, joshing, grinning, pensive proof of that tenacity. Amadou and Mariam were treated to a full-throated rendition of their hit Je Pense A toi by the gingham-dressed assembly of about 200 six to 16-year-olds. Their school is an amalgam of three older institutions that were all destroyed in the earthquake. Many of the girls are what's euphemistically called "en domesticité", which in effect means that their parents are dead or have abandoned them and they are now in the care of relatives, or even strangers, for whom they have to perform domestic chores in return for food, clothing and at least the semblance of home.
After the concert, some of the girls were asked to tell Amadou and Mariam their stories. One, a waif with round coffee-drop eyes and a shy, serious face, explained that she had lost her parents in the earthquake and was sent to live with an uncle, for whom she had to wash, cook, clean, sew, scrub and generally toil from six until noon. Then, every day, she walked several kilometres to school where she received a hot meal, courtesy of the World Food Programme, and a basic education. "Does your uncle beat you?" someone asked. "No, because I never disobey him," she replied. After a while tears drowned her words and the interview came to an abrupt halt. Amadou's face was turned skywards throughout, his lips parted in concentration, a grim expression on his face.
We clambered back into our vehicles for the next stop on the ambassadorial tour. Travelling around in air-conditioned 4x4 comfort, doors locked and windows closed, surrounded by a well-meaning but paranoid UN security detail, was gnawingly embarrassing, especially when our convoy pulled into a tent camp and invited hard, blank "seen it all before" stares from the locals. I felt like an undersea explorer, observing some strange aqua world through the porthole of my expensive submersible. When we did manage to break out, and spend half an hour in the exhaust-laden breeze of a huge downtown roundabout, snapping those amazing tap-tap buses, it was a blessed relief. I felt human and vulnerable again.
Even though I was trailing two of Africa's most famous musicians round the Haitian capital, there was little interaction with Haiti's famously prolific music scene until the last night of our stay, when Amadou and Mariam performed at the French Cultural Centre in front of ambassadors, diplomats, NGO staff and friends. Stepping into the freshly rebuilt Cultural Centre from the raucous streets was like stepping out of a novel by Dickens and into one by F Scott Fitzgerald. Outside, the Nepalese UN policemen guarded our world of privilege with tropical camouflage, mirror shades and grim faces.
Amadou and Mariam delivered their blithe Malian rhythms and melodies to polite appreciation, punctuating the end of each song with sincere words about what they had felt and heard during their brief stay in this troubled and enchanting land. But it took a legend of modern Haitian song to bring the outside world limping back through the tight UN security cordon and ignite the evening.
Jean-Prosper Dauphin, aka Beken, is a 55-year-old balladeer with sad eyes and a single leg. He lost the other in a car accident when he was 12. He was a Creole superstar in the 1980s and 1990s but an inability to look after his money or his health led to lean times. When the earthquake struck in January of 2010, Beken lost his house and was forced to move into a tent city with his family. His life hit rock bottom. He couldn't even bring himself to sing or pick up the guitar.
Nonetheless, the people of Haiti turned to Beken's beautiful little masterpieces of tropical melancholy to find a musical reflection of their own grief. Songs like Famn Se Kajou, La Vie and Tribulation became the soundtrack to a grieving nation. Thus, by this tragic twist of fate, Beken's fortunes began to revive. Articles about him appeared in The New York Times and France's Telerama magazine and he was invited to perform in France.
On stage with Amadou and Mariam, Beken's cracked voice painted Haiti's pain. His rendition of Famn Se Kajou injected a smouldering melancholy into our lively occasion and had the Haitians around me up on their feet, swaying and clapping with delirious abandon.
Meanwhile, out in the hot Caribbean night, its air perfumed with diesel fumes and salty sea air, people were huddled in their makeshift tent cities, shovelling those endless tons of rubble from the streets and neighbourhoods, living for tomorrow because today is just about survival and little more. If there's one signpost that has never been stolen and sold for scrap, despite every hurricane, earthquake, coup or cruel dictator, it's the one that reads 'Hope'. It's the only one that means anything right now.
Updated: June 9, 2011 04:00 AM