Interview: Franketienne (July 2016)

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I recently spoke via email with Franketienne about Haitian music through an intermediary, his wife Marie-Andree. Franketienne is Haiti’s greatest living writer, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Franketienne is also a singer and though he has not recorded much other than a phenomenal musical adaptation of his novel Dezafi by the Haitian composer Gerard Merceron, he sings songs to Vodou loas before many of his lectures and presentations and has also written songs for his many plays.

I was particularly interested in his involvement in Haitian mini-jazz music. I had read in an article by Dany Laferriere that Franketienne wrote songs for a mini-jazz “Les Ambassadeurs”. Djaz is a moniker that emerged during the American occupation of Haiti to signify a large band and mini jazz means a miniature djaz. The Mini-jazz revolutionised Haitian music starting in the late 60’s by playing Konpa with much smaller groups. To this day, their songs produce hedonist euphoria in Haitian social gatherings and mini-jazz continue to be founded though no longer as mini-jazz. They unite the Haitian Kreyol’s (French people living in the Antilles) sensual music tradition of adapting French music like Bergerette to Haitian life beginning with the song “Lisette Quite La Plaine”, the Haitian rhythmic tradition kept up by Vodou drumming. They also bring in Latin American rhythms into their compositions that descends from the same African cultures as Haitian music.

Franketienne has spent most of his adult life as a communist and though he may not be a communist anymore, communist Haitian writers have written the most poignant criticism of Haitian culture and of Haitian music. From Jacques Roumain’s cultural anthropology to Jacques Stephen Alexis’s cultural theory (he’s most well known for his theory on Haitian magical realism), and aside from noiriste (black power) intellectuals such as Michel Lamartiniere Honorat, most of Haiti’s finest cultural theorist have been communists. One of the most analytical studies of mini jazz is by the communist anthropologist Jean Coulanges. Jean Coulanges along with Michel Rolph Trouillot under the pseudonym Michel Amer. The eminent anthropologist, who taught at John Hopkins and at the University of Chicago, wrote one of the most precise criticisms of Haitian mini-jazz in the Haitian magazine Lakansyel. In the article, they presented mini jazz music as not the music of the people but the music of youngsters of the middle class and the upper class forced to play Konpa rhythms because they lived under Francois Duvalier’s dictatorship. So why would communist Franketienne write hedonist mini-jazz songs?

The story ended up being that Les Ambassadeurs had sung Franketienne’s poetry from his book Chevaux de l’Avant-jour and not that he had written for them. He would have made an incredible songwriter of mini jazz. Franketienne wrote a novel Mur A Crever, translated to Ready to Burst, that most captures the ethos expressed by mini jazz musicians such as Shleu Shleu, Tabou Combo, and later the Gemini All Stars. In his novel, like in most of the songs, a young man, Raynand, and his double Paulin, is in love with the pursuit of a beautiful life but is held down to the point of hallucination (the novel begins with a hallucination) by the society he lives in. He ends up leaving Haiti and moving to the Bahamas, where he is killed.

“Dogs pass by (I’ve always been obsessed with stray dogs). They yap at the silhouette of the woman I’ve been chasing. At the image of the man I’ve been seeking out. At my double. At the murmurings of fleeting voices. For so many years now. It feels like thirty centuries.

The woman has left. Without fanfare. Left my heart out of tune. The man never held out his hand to me. My double is always just a step ahead of me. And the unhinged throats of nocturnal dogs let loose terrifying howls, making the sound of a broken accordion.

He did not want to speak about mini jazz as much as he wanted to tell me that Haitian culture had now become decadent and that youngsters are copying American and European foreigners instead of looking to their own culture to produce music. They, to him, are reproducing rock, hip-hop, or reggae culture instead of Haitian culture. Rap has become Haitian youth’s favourite genre of music: the chances that he is correct are high. He told me the problem is that Haiti has never been a nation and that even when the first Emperor of Haiti Jean Jacques Dessalines, a man who cared deeply about land being redistributed among recently freed slaves, was assassinated, crowds chose to dance around the dead Emperor – its an old issue. He told me that the slaves who had banded together to fight the Haitian revolution were from different African tribes; that the Haitian nation has still to be built. He seemed to be telling me that the country was too divided in order to produce grand music. He is a man who lives deeply disappointed by the music of contemporary Haiti, which he feels is the product of Haiti’s mismanaged place in a globalised world.

Amidst his talk about Haiti’s music today being the expression of decadence, I committed myself to asking him about which Haitian music he actually likes. A native of Bel-Air, a neighborhood that even the dictator Francois Duvalier could not easily control, he likes a Bel-Air favorite Jazz Des Jeunes. Jazz Des Jeunes is no communist music and is not dogmatic whatsoever. The Jazz Des Jeunes was founded on the same street that my grandmother Noncilia St. Louis Jean lives on: Ruelle Cameau. Ruelle Cameau is several streets away from Bel Air but also from Dr. Francois Duvalier’s house. Jazz Des Jeunes arranged Haitian vodou music and folksongs into some of the very best recorded music in Haitian history. He also likes the two mythical big bands beloved by most, if not all, Haitians: Orchestre Septentrional and Orchestre Tropicana.

He’s also a fan of rasin music. Rasin music is Haitian Vodou music arranged and blended in with rock and roll and pop music. Rasin, however, seeks to produce Haitian culture, as tropicalia in Brazil did by melding rock to Brazilian rhythms. It was particularly popular after 1986 when Jean Claude Duvalier was overthrown in the 1990’s, and in the early 2000’s. Rasin music is more than often very political. He’s a fan of the rasin group Boukman Experyans.

There are some mini-jazz musicians that he likes and he named Les Freres Dejean and Tabou Combo as two of them. The Haitian poetry that Franketienne and other Haitian writers practiced at the time when the mini-jazz had become insanely popular was very clinical and sober; the music of mini-jazz was some of the only poetic ecstasy that existed during the time. After telling me about mini-jazz musicians that he likes, however, he added that the Haitian youth are not conscious of what Haiti truly suffers from, adding that they have no identity.

It was obvious to me that Franketienne is committed to Haiti in a way that cannot include stopping at the pleasure felt from listening to the minijazz. I’m sure that he dreams of a new music, expressed by a nation having found new humanity: music for which I will be all ears.

photo © Marie-Andrée Étienne

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