Although Haiti wiped out slavery in its 18th century revolution, its society still suffers from the racial, cultural and linguistic divisions inherited from slavery. Toussaint’s tolerant statesmanship was unable to resist Napeolon’s push to reimpose slavery. It took the tyranny and despotism of Dessalines and Christophe.
Haitian despots stepped into the shoes of the French despots. The new, mulatto ruling class considered its French language and culture superior to the blacks’ Créole language and Voodoo religion, which it despised. The corruption and despotism of the black political class created by Duvalier suggest that, despite its profession of noirisme, it internalized the mulatto contempt for its own race.
Haitian Créole is the product of the transformation of French in Saint Domingue by African slaves who needed a common language, one the slave-owners were forced to learn in order to speak to their slaves.
More important is how Créole and French are used now. All Haitians understand Créole and speak it at least part of the time. Use of French is limited to the élite and middle class. The illiterate majority of the population understand no French at all. There is almost no teaching in Créole and no attempt is made to teach French as a foreign language to the few Créole-only speakers who enter the school system. Since mastery of French is still a condition for self-advancement, language perpetuates Haiti’s deep class divisions. All those pushing for reform in Haiti are trying to change this. Radio stations have begun using Créole in the last 10 years. Musicians now increasingly sing in Créole. The 1987 constitution gave Créole equal official status alongside French. Even élite politicians have begun using Créole in speeches although some speak it poorly. Aristide’s sway over the people is due in part to his poetic virtuosity in Créole. A phonetic transcription of Créole has evolved over the last 50 years, but little has been published except the Bible, some poetry and, nowadays, a weekly pro-Aristide newspaper, Libète. Créole is famed for its proverbs voicing popular philosophy and reflecting Haiti’s enormous social divisions. The best teach yourself book is Ann Pale Kreyòl, published by the Créole Institute, Ballentine Hall 602, Indiana University, Bloomington IN 47405, USA. It is hard to find in Haitian bookshops. (In the text above, ‘Cr’ means Créole version).
Haitian handicraft and naive art is the best in the Caribbean. Even such utilitarian articles as the woven straw shoulder bags and the tooled-leather scabbards of the peasant machete have great beauty. The rada Voodoo drum is an object of great aesthetic appeal. Haiti is famed for its wood carvings, but poverty has pushed craftsmen into producing art from such cheap material as papier maché and steel drums, flattened and turned into cut-out wall-hangings or sculpture. Haitian naive art on canvas emerged only in response to the demand of travellers and tourists in the 1930s and 40s, but it had always existed on the walls of Voodoo temples, where some of the best representations of the spirit world are to be found. Weddings, cock fights, market scenes or fantasy African jungles are other favoured themes. Good paintings can range from one hundred to several thousand dollars. Mass-produced but lively copies of the masters sell for as little as US$10. Negotiating with street vendors and artists can be an animated experience, offering insights into the nation’s personality. (See Shopping ).
Exposure to white racism during the US occupation shook some of the mulatto intellectuals out of their complacent Francophilia. Led by Jean Price Mars and his 1919 pioneering essay Ainsi parla l’oncle (Thus Spoke Uncle) they began to seek their identity in Haiti’s African roots. Peasant life, Créole expressions and Voodoo started to appear together with a Marxist perspective in novels such as Jacques Romain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée (Masters of the Dew). René Depestre, now resident in Paris after years in Cuba, is viewed as Haiti’s greatest living novelist. Voodoo, politics and acerbic social comment are blended in the novels of Gary Victor, a deputy minister in the Aristide government before the coup.
Nigel Gallop writes: The poorest nation in the western hemisphere is among the richest when it comes to music. This is a people whose most popular religion worships the deities through singing, drumming and dancing. The prime musical influence is African, although European elements are to be found, but none that are Amerindian. The music and dance (and in Haiti music is almost inseparable from dance) can be divided into three main categories: Voodoo ritual, rural folk and urban popular. The Voodoo rituals, described above, are collective and are profoundly serious, even when the loa is humorous or mischievous. The hypnotic dance is accompanied by call-and-response singing and continuous drumming, the drums themselves (the large Manman, medium-sized Seconde and smaller Bula or Kata) being regarded as sacred.
During Mardi Gras (Carnival) and Rara bands of masked dancers and revellers can be found on the roads and in the streets almost anywhere in the country, accompanied by musicians playing the Vaccines (bamboo trumpets). Haitians also give rein to their love of music and dance in the so-called Bambouches, social gatherings where the dancing is pou’ plaisi’ (for pleasure) and largely directed to the opposite sex. They may be doing the Congo, the Martinique or Juba, the Crabienne or the national dance, the Méringue. The first two are of African provenance, the Crabienne evolved from the European Quadrille, while the Méringue is cousin to the Dominican Merengue. Haitians claim it originated in their country and was taken to the Dominican Republic during the Haitian occupation of 1822 to 1844, but this is a matter of fierce debate between the two nations. In remote villages it may still be possible to come across such European dances as the Waltz, Polka, Mazurka and Contredanse, accompanied by violin, flute or accordion.
Haitian music has not remained impervious to outside influences during the 20th century, many of them introduced by Haitian migrant workers returning from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the region (as well as exporting its own music to Cuba’s Oriente province in the form of the Tumba Francesa). One very important external influence was that of the Cuban Son, which gave rise to the so-called ‘Troubadour Groups’, with their melodious voices and soft guitar accompaniment, still to be heard in some hotels. Jazz was another intruder, a result of the US marines’ occupation between 1915 and 1934. Then in the 1950s two equally celebrated composers and band leaders, Nemours Jean-Baptiste and Weber Sicot, introduced a new style of recreational dance music, strongly influenced by the Dominican Merengue and known as Compact Directe (‘compas’) or Cadence Rampa. Compas (the s is not pronounced) dominated the music scene until the past few years, when it has become a much more open market, with Salsa, Reggae, Soca and Zouk all making big inroads. A number of Haitian groups have achieved international recognition, notably Tabou Combo and Coupé Cloué, while female singers Martha-Jean Claude and Toto Bissainthe have also made a name for themselves abroad. One excellent troubadour-style singer who has been well-recorded is Althiery Dorival. Also highly recommended is the set of six LPs titled ‘Roots of Haiti’, recorded in the country, but distributed by Mini Records of Brooklyn. Finally, no comment on Haitian music would be complete without reference to the well-known lullaby ‘Choucounne’ which, under the title ‘Yellow Bird’, is crooned to tourists every night on every English-speaking Antillean island.
Mike Tarr adds: A musical revolution came with the emergence of ‘voodoo beat’, a fusion of Voodoo drumming and melody with an international rock guitar and keyboard sound. Its lyrics call for political change and a return to peasant values. With albums out on the Island label, and US tours behind them, Boukman Eksperyans is the most successful of these bands. People who have ignored Voodoo all their lives are possessed at Boukman concerts. Other ‘voodoo beat’ bands of note are Ram, Boukan Ginen, Foula, Sanba-Yo and Koudjay.
Port-Au-Prince - Institut Haitiano-Americain (T2223715/2947) corner of Rue Capois and Rue St-Cyr, next to Le Plaza, 0800-1200, 1300-1700 Mon to Fri. The director is helpful to visiting travellers. Institut Français, corner of Blvd Harry Truman and Rue des Casernes, Bicentenaire, T2223720. 1000-1600 Tues to Fri, 0900-1700 Sat. Also has art exhibitions, concerts and plays.