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?