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?


7 commentaires:

  1. Ironic wasn't it? Carnival Master himself who has used it as free speech entity and a referendum on government cried foul. "Yo gen rezon di asasen pe san."
    Great rundown on this year's general messages from the Carnival. My personal favorite is Stayle. I found it original from every angle: impeccable colors, poignant message, depiction of actualities, humor, theme and ideas. The video was a huge hit. I listened to several interviews by both vwadezil and brothers posse and it was sad that some people forgot the spirit of Haitian Carnival. Unidentified assailants attacked both individuals and their families, yet the amoral actions of the kind of carnival never provoked popular outrage.
    But you articulated this masterfully; "Carnival is FUN... carnival songs." It's a social movement as well as a time for national unity. Thank you for pointing that out. I love the title, it says it all.

  2. I love this article. It is fun yet insightful and explains the significance of carnaval in our culture. Some of my favorites this year include songs with positive (Freedom & Boukman), political (Vwadezil, Brother's Posse - although they did do an about-face yesterday on the "parcous")and just fun (Team Lobey) messages. I'm sharing the link to this article on HIP.

  3. How did they do an about-face, Sha? I was wondering about that, but haven't really been watching the festivities this year. I'm still bitter that we were deprived in P-au-P!


  4. I really did not understand the level of frustration directed at the president over this OKAY business. You're not alone in the bitterness departement. It may prove costly to the decision makers. I realize people are really angry, as I read and listened various points of view about this issue.

    1. Yes, people were/are pretty angry. I don't think it's necessarily about having the carnival in Okay. It's the fact of completely cancelling the celebration in the capital. Some band leaders were on the radio, saying they had been threatened with arrests if they dared to near Champ de Mars. And Champ de Mars was completely dead the first two nights. A couple of bands did come out on Tuesday night and it was such a different atmosphere! But, apre bal, tanbou lou, back to the political chess game!

  5. Na, Brother's Posse stopped in front of the president's stand to salute him and say it was all love, blah blah blah. On one night Kato was even on T-Micky's float (rolling my eyes).