samedi 18 février 2012

The power of the metaphor

It's that time of year again: Kanaval! Some people love it, some people hate it. I imagine some might be indifferent. But, if you love carnival and Haitian carnival in particular, chances are you've been busy these past few weeks -- listening to the different merengues, debating with friends, watching videos, settling on your top picks. Personally, I don't feel like 2012 is shaping up to be stellar as far as carnival songs go. Some of my favorite years were 2002, for example -- Chandèl's Ma Patrie and Tokay's O Senyè come to mind, and who could forget Mizik Mizik's Zoukoutap? 2009 was a good year, too. There was Carimi's catchy Zandolit, but Barikad Crew and Rockfam stole the show. I don't think I will ever forget watching those two floats surrounded by thousands on the Champ de Mars. It was magic. But, Vwadèzil's Tèt Grenn stole my heart that year.Tèt grenn pa jwe. 

This year, Vwadèzil has done it again with M p ap ka ba ou Metafò w. It is definitely a contender for this year's most popular merengue. Besides the music, what is driving this song's popularity is its play on words and the political and social commentary it contains. The text is a virulent critique of Minustah, the UN forces currently in Haiti, specifically referring to the cholera outbreak instigated by UN troops, but especially the various cases of sexual abuse and violence that they have been involved in, such as the one which occurred in Port-Salut last year. They also mention Michel Martelly's tendancy to literally drop his pants. So, of course, everyone immediately thought of the song's brash lyrics when the group's lead singer was attacked last Sunday while taking part in pre-carnival activities at Champ de Mars.

Brother's Posse's Antonio Chéramy, better known as Don Kato also faced physical retaliation for the views expressed in his music. Brother's Posse's 2012 merengue, Stayle is a big hit. Like Vwadèzil's merengue, it also criticizes both Minustah and the president.  You can read the words here. In addition, last week, Kato was on television criticizing Michel Martelly and his actions as president. That very night, the house where he was staying was attacked.

According to news reports, certain radio stations refuse to play Stayle. And both Vwadèzil and Brother's Posse were initially excluded from the national parade in Okay. It's not difficult to understand how they would pose a threat to official authority by poking fun at those in power and encouraging the crowd to do the same. As Mikhail Bakhtin explains in his analysis of carnival: “[…] festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts”.

Haitian carnival merengues have long held this function. In the final chapter of his seminal book, A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey, Gage Averill reviews various carnival songs banned in the 1990s and their political signifying. Haitian carnival has always been a time for artists to attempt to convey the population’s grievances. Often the most popular song is the one who best fulfills that mission. Averill spends a lot of time on Boukman Eksperyans, and such politically charged pieces as Kè m pa sote and Kalfou Danjere. He rightly points out that mostly rasin bands do the criticisizing. But, not always. There was Sweet Mickey’s own 2002 merengue, for example, which refers to a rice scandal involving government officials.

Carnival is FUN. It's a time to relax, to party hard. But carnival in Haiti is also serious business, and both the population and authorities recognize it as such. Merengues have helped topple governments, or at least signaled their impending demise. It's the power of the metaphor. Not to be taken lightly. On another note, it is precisely because the words chanted/shouted/sung during carnival do matter that various social organizations make sure to call attention to those that are discriminatory and/or oppressive. Often, women's rights groups lead the charge. This year, an organization of citizens discriminated against due to gender or sexual orientation have published an open letter to the president on the matter of homophobic lyrics in carnival songs.

In the latest news, it looks like Brother's Posse will have a float in Okay after all. And Vwadèzil's Fresh la might be on it. It'll be interesting to see whether they remain as virulent in their critiques or if their tune will change. Other songs of note this year: Boukman Eksperyans with Banm pam ladan l and Zatrap's Moun Pa. Check out Plezikanaval for an extensive list of this year's merengues. What's your favorite?


lundi 6 février 2012

Moun nou: Gina Athéna Ulysse

“If I didn’t define myself for myself I would be crunched up by other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.” --Audre Lorde

Note to our readers:  This post marks a new feature for Tande in 2012 in which we profile a Haitian writer, scholar, performer or artist.  These profiles will vary from focused reviews  of the person’s work and contribution to the field to actual interviews that we conduct with them.  

I first met Gina Athena Ulysse during my last year of graduate school in 2006 at the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars hosted in Miami by Florida International University.  I had organized a panel of Haitian women writers and scholars featuring Myriam Chancy, Edwidge Danticat, and Evelyne Trouillot (Jan Dominique was also supposed to join us but could not make it in the end) followed by a panel of scholars made up of Nadève, Nadège Clitandre, Ulysse and myself.  Gina has been recommended to me by Nadège for her active participation in the Haitian Studies Association. 
Gina's paper was first on the panel.  A stirring personal essay that combined her trademark spoken word, vodou chants, and auto-ethnographic approach, one that breaks new ground in the rote presentations of academic papers.  To say that I was blown away by the presentation is certainly an understatement.  Her performances are known for being amusing, thought provoking and melodious.

As the years have gone on, I have come to admire the way she gracefully and powerfully inhabits her roles as a scholar, feminist, performer, and activist.  A professor of anthropology at Wesleyan College (where she has the good company of two other scholars working on Haiti, Alex Dupuy and Elizabeth McAllister), Gina is by trade an anthropologist.  In a field where the relationship between "native" and "other"  is often charged and problematic, Dr. Ulysse has transformed her field through critical ethnographic approaches that refuse to maintain the distance between scholar and practitioner, or between the object of analysis and the one conducting the analysis.  As an anthropologist she is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Reporters, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica which takes an innovative ethnographic approach to exploring questions about gender, sexuality, nation and belonging.

 Dr. Ulyssse's impact is not only for Haitian Studies, her interventions in the fields of anthropology and women’s studies are also well known.  A public intellectual, she writes regularly for venues such as Ms. Blog and the Huffington Post.  She effectively inhabits the roles of scholar, feminist, Haitianist, and activist with unfailing ease, creativity and commitment.  As the quote beginning this post attests to (it is by Audre Lorde, the original feminist poet warrior who figures in  and is conjured in Ulysse's work) self-definition is a central theme that preoccupies Dr. Ulysse.  Coming from a culture that has been defined to the point of exhaustion, she looks at Haiti through a lens that begins from the ground up and attempts to account for voices that are not often heard.  Or, as she puts it on her website, "Haiti needs new narratives" and her work is committed to creating some.   Rather than focus on Ulysse’s contributions to the academy, I want to look at her most recent CD: I Am A Storm, which is a stirring collection of poems, chants, and songs that display the breadth of her artistic work.

There is a cadre of women Haitian performance artists working in the US that also includes Gabrielle Civil and Lenelle Moise women who are using art to address a wide range of themes in complex ways.  Through her shows like "Because When God Is Too Busy:  Haiti, Me and the World" Ulysse is well known for performance art which routinely explores topics such as Haitian history, gender, sexuality, globalization, US imperialism, and the politics of being a scholar-activist.  Interspersed with vaudou chants, spoken word, songs, and drumming, Ulysse’s performance art moves between Kreyòl, French and English to explore these themes among many.  What I find most striking is how effectively she combines different traditions of the African diaspora and juxtaposes them wit Haitian history and culture.  For the first track Tranblé, she begins singing a chant in a an alto voice full of gravitas "Ezili si nou tranble ankò, pran nou, tranble, kenbe pitit nan kay, tranble nap tranble...Sove pitit lakay nou sot tranble..." this piece transitions into the next poem "Skin Castles," which she begins singing "In the castle of my skin" to the same tanbou beat.

The poem begins as a rumination on racial categorizations and classification based on the mixing of black and white blood, going from the one drop rule back into another chant in Kreyòl and ending with a prayer "Saint Philomène Vierge martyre rendez-nous miséricorde" moving seamlessly between languages and forms and cultural traditions.  After announcing that "the strong black woman is dead" the poem goes on to tell the story of a woman who was a street vendor who serves the spirits and smokes a pipe.  Mentioning examples of women contained and defined in "Skin Castles" she ultimately concludes, "I exist as I am and that is enough". She ends with a final chant to Papa Gede.  The sentiments  expressed in the final part of the poem about the importance of self definition expresses a theme that recurs in Ulysse's scholarship and social commentary.

The second poem "Athena's Rant" takes the audience through the history of foreign invasion and occupation in Haiti by setting up a parallel between two neighbors at odds.  "Imagine that you are living your imagine that the neighbor next door decided to come into your yard and tell you how to run your affairs..."  The neighbors are of course Haiti and the USA, and as she goes on to explain, "If you ask me not enough has been written about the respect and politeness of a nation that has been invaded and penetrated by its biggest and baddest neighbor... Haiti, like another nation is just another small symbol on a global monopoly one has talked enough about the disrespect of all kinds that Haiti has endured over the years by the most powerful nations in the world...."  She then cites a number of dates,  "1849, 1851, 1857, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1869, 1876, 1888, 1891, 1892, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1915.... during every single year US navy fleets either invaded Haiti or threatened to come on our shores to protect their interests." Combining history with sharp political analysis and insight into the impact of globalization in Haiti, Ulysse brings the listener through the complicated history.  The sound effects of planes landing, bombs blasting, and the sound of helicopters adds to this military history which Ulysse relates in a stern, ironic tone. Ulysse concludes on a salient point about this past and others meddling in Haitian politics, "In Haiti, we've been living with terror alerts of one kind or another since before the day we were born."

These comments on the first two track from the CD are just to give you a taste of the scope of Dr. Ulysse's work.  I encourage all of our readers to pick up I Am A Storm or check out one of her live performances to hear what else Gina Ulysse has to say about Haitian representation, culture, history and politics for a real eye-opening, entertaining and thought-provoking treat!