New Orleans Jazz Fest dances to rhythm of all things Haitian
Published: Friday, April 29, 2011, 7:59 AM Updated: Friday, April 29, 2011, 8:20 AM
As the New Orleans Jazz Fest prepares for the world's largest presentation of Haitian music since last year's earthquake, it will also be preparing for what might be best called political royalty.
After kompa singer Michel Martelly was elected president this month, he named his cousin, Richard Morse, a presidential adviser. Morse, a featured performer at Jazz Fest, leads a prominent Haitian band called RAM that plays what he calls "vodou rock'n'roots" and what is known in Haiti as mizik rasin.
"It's a fascinating time for Haitian music," said Ned Sublette, author of "The World that Made New Orleans." "Haitians voted for the music ticket. You cannot deny the importance of communication through music in Haiti. And this is something New Orleanians know well."
The biting lyrics of Morse's band fit into a long tradition of Haitian musicians speaking their minds and drawing inspiration from the chaos and violence that have long characterized life in their country. The outspoken Morse has endured threats and an assassination attempt. Other bands have had certain political songs banned by Haitian leaders.
And the latest tie between Louisiana and Haiti may be political: On April 15, the United States resumed deportations of Haitians who had committed crimes in the United States. The deportees are shipped into Louisiana before they are flown home by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from an airport near Alexandria.
Deportations originally resumed in January but stopped after a deported man died of cholera in a primitive Haitian jail. As the United States prepared to resume its flights in April, Loyola Law School staffers interviewed Haitian detainees held in northern Louisiana facilities. They found that less than half had committed violent crimes and urged another suspension.
But ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said the agency must release a detained illegal immigrant within 180 days if he or she is not deported. "The U.S. government made the tough decision to restart the removals, with a focus on serious offenders, because they pose a threat to the American public," Gonzalez said.
Morse said the two governments are in negotiations, but in his view, it is a "difficult time" to be sending criminals to Haiti. "We don't have the infrastructure," he said. Consider what might have ensued, he mused, if all of the cities that took in the New Orleans diaspora after Hurricane Katrina had decided to send back criminals to the city while the city's jail was still in the Greyhound bus station.
Morse believes New Orleans has welcomed Haiti to Jazz Fest this year because of New Orleans feels a renewed kinship through disaster -- Katrina and the Haitian earthquake that he has dubbed "Samson, because he knocked all our buildings down."
"Haiti-New Orleans, twin sisters separated at birth," Morse posted to Twitter earlier this week from his home in Port-au-Prince.
In the early 1800s, Haitians fleeing the revolution doubled the size of New Orleans. Their legacy includes some of the city's key traditions: red beans, Creole cottages and shotgun houses, vodou ceremonies, signature drumming, dances and rhythms. Haitians also contributed to quintessential parts of New Orleans culture like Mardi Gras Indian tribes and second-line parades.
For Morse, it's simple. "In the beginning, they were one, in a sense," he said.
Incubator of N.O. culture
Before its independence, when Haiti was known as St. Domingue, it was the richest part of a French colony that also included New Orleans, Morse said.
Haiti and Louisiana were part of a larger cultural continuum that stretched to Brasil, a predominantly Catholic part of the world that Sublette calls "the saints and festivals belt."
When Haiti won its independence, two important boomerang effects changed New Orleans history.
In 1803, the French, suffering from its losses from the war in Haiti, sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States.
Within years, New Orleans had doubled in population because 90 percent of the families fleeing the revolution ended up here, either coming directly or through Cuba. "No aspect of New Orleans culture remain untouched by these whites, blacks and mulattoes," Sublette wrote in his book.
"The ties between New Orleans and Haiti are so profound that they extend all the way back to the early days of the city," Sublette said. "They enter into the music on deep levels and into the society on deep levels. And the best way to make that connection is through music."
And the musical connection is best felt, not theorized, Morse said. "It's not an exact science," he said. "But there's definitely a kinship, something about the vibe, a feeling that carries across."
And when he gets on stage, Morse shed his other roles and is strictly a musician seeking a responsive audience, he said.
"There's politics, culture, and history," Morse said. "But we like it when people dance. So move your bodies."
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3396.
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