Photo © Jean-Pierre Cloutier

Music and Politics


Jean-Pierre Cloutier

Note : Initially published in the Spring of 1987 in The Haiti Times.

Music and politics have long been tied, one influencing the other in often subtle ways. In recent times, musicians and song writers over the world have put their talents to serve social causes, to express political statements, to voice the plight of the repressed. In America, the sixties saw the coining of the phrase "protest song," as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and a plethora of author artists were protesting the Vietnam war. "A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall" they said. And it did. Woodstock wasn't far away, neither was Jimi Hendrix' warped rendition of the U.S. national anthem, reflecting what he thought of his country then. Just about at the same time, a dilettante John Lennon was singing "Happiness is a warm gun." Little did he know then that on a cold December night, the warmth of a gun would take his life. In the Caribbean, drenched in sun and music, the Jamaican reggae cum rasta phenomenon propelled Micheal Manley to power. He was replaced after a while, but not before Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley had time to spread the "Stand up for your rights" philosophy.

Few nations can boast having such a great number of creative musicians as Haiti. Such a small country, so much talent. But one legacy of the past regimes was that political comment in songs was stifled, unless it stood for one or the other of the Duvaliers. But the November 1985 events, culminating in February 1986, saw the polarization of anti-Duvalierist opposition forces around one song, "Le'm pa we soley" by Jean-Michel Daudier. The author-composer had been asked by the Catholic Church run Radio Soleil to write a song that could be used as identification to the station. He did, and the song became an instant hit, a rally symbol for the opposition and for the courage displayed by Radio Soleil in fighting off the Duvalier regime.

Previous to that, several artists had written songs depicting social problems in Haiti, but had been seen with a bad eye by the authorities. A group called "Les Freres Parent" was jailed at Fort Dimanche and later exiled because their criticism of the system was too vocal. Fedia Laguerre, often referred to as "The First Lady of Dechoukay," also spent several years in exile. Manno Charlemagne, the bard of the oppressed was persecuted for years. At the time of the Falklands war, Dixie Band had put out a song called "Malouines" saying "Soldiers get killed, officers get decorated." The records were seized from the stores and destroyed by government authorities. Similar examples abound. But on February 7, 1986, the gag fell and everybody felt free to let their feelings out. Political songs were reborn in Haiti.

First tangible sign of this came from street musicians who can take an idea, write a song around it, and play it the same evening. No production delays, no promotion agents to deal with, no studio booking. From the author to you. Street bands started singing the "I'm Sorry for You" piece, whose real author will never be known. It goes "Michelle Bennett, I am sorry for you, from now on it's on TV on you'll see Haiti." Another hot piece during the army/people honeymoon period was "The military don't get paid, meanwhile macoutes drive Pajeros." But, the "established" musicians were preparing a brew of their own, the first one being "Aba!" (Down with...) by the Dixie Band. The lyrics of the song represent a collection of what several Haitians wanted (and still want) to do away with. Exit visas, poverty, unemployment, torture, arbitrary arrests, searches without warrant. Fedia Laguerre then came out with "Dechoukay," in which she calls for all the "macoutes, criminals, assassins, torturers, thieves" to be tried for their actions.

The latest instalment in politically-oriented songs is a number titled "Veye yo" by Les Frères Parent. This time, political candidates seem to bear the brunt of the artists in a rap-a-billy content-oriented type song.

But all is not protest and anger in the musical panorama of present day Haiti. Many songs are testimonials of a newly-found pride in the country, its history, its potential.

The future of political songs in Haiti is unclear. One thing that is certain is that they enjoy tremendous exposure in popular circles. In public transport buses, all equipped with stereo cassette tapes, people joyfully sing along the tunes pumped out from the speakers. They know the lyrics by heart, and will often quote them in conversations. Once again, musicians are shaping the collective consciousness. It remains to see how far they will be allowed to go in expressing the people's concerns.


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On this site: May 18, 1997