Mother of Haiti

Carole Demesmin is a vodou priestess, singer, activist, and -- above all -- a hopeful savior of her troubled homeland

Her work doesn't fit neatly into any category -- call it jazz-inflected folk that often borrows a calypso beat. Her songs, such as "Bato Negrier" off her second album, are stories of Haiti. "Bato Negrier" means "slave ship" in the African Congo dialect Dawomen, and the song speaks of the death, disease, and other hardships that slaves from that region experienced on their forced journey to Haiti.

Another song from the same record, "Rara," is about the Haitian holiday of the same name that happens each year around Easter. It is the one day when people are free to speak their minds, says Demesmin, to say what they think about their neighbors or their government and not have to fear repercussions.

Her latest record, Kongayiti-Afrika, is heavy on world beat influence, which Demesmin traces to her time at Berklee College where she went to school with musicians from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. It's an updated sound for Demesmin, who as one observer of Haitian culture notes, isn't exactly cutting-edge on the island anymore. "There are a lot of new, young artists," says Kim Ives, a writer for Haiti Progres newspaper, based in Brooklyn. "She is considered one of the grand dames of Haitian singing."

Demesmin's shows combine elements of Haitian music, art, and history
Demesmin's shows combine elements of Haitian music, art, and history
Demesmin's shows combine elements of Haitian music, art, and history
Demesmin's shows combine elements of Haitian music, art, and history

Demesmin is well-known and respected in Haiti for her music, notes Ives, but there is one black mark against her: She played a concert in 1979 attended by Simone Duvalier, wife of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Haiti's bloody dictator from 1957 to 1971. Duvalier, a country doctor before he rose to power and named himself "president for life," is infamous for spreading terror via his personal police force, the Tonton Macoutes (Creole for "bogeymen").

That an established artist like Demesmin would play for a member of the Duvalier family was interpreted as a sign of allegiance to the regime, says Ives. But that was a long time ago, he adds, and many have forgiven the sin. "My sense is that the bygone has sort of slipped away," he says. "She was sort of pardoned. Enough history has passed so it's not as bitter a memory."

Demesmin says the story is true, but in reality she was one of many artists to perform as a traveling show sponsored by investors in New York, not the Duvaliers. She scoffs at the notion that she gave a command performance to please the Duvaliers, noting that, when asked to play a private birthday party for Simone Duvalier, she declined. "I said I would be released from my contract in three hours and on the next plane," she says.

These days Demesmin is neither priestess nor diva. She has cut her spiritual counseling to a minimum and put all her singing on hold in order to devote her time and energy to her third persona: activist.

Demesmin was in Haiti in 1986 when Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's regime toppled and the dictator fled to France. It was the best of times and the worst of times for the country, she says. There was hope with the end of the brutal Duvalier regime, yet there was also a great deal of violence and unrest. "The country was very insecure," she says. "People were killing people for anything. Your father had a problem with me? That is a good time to kill, I am free to kill."

The violence sickened her, and despite the danger she spoke out against it on national TV. "One day I had proof of a guy that I know that had nothing to do with the Duvalier regime was killed because another person wanted his land," she says. "They came and burned him up. I went to the military and reported it, and they said they can't do anything. They said, 'Carole don't even get yourself involved in this, because people will attack you.' I said, 'I think I need to go on national TV and let people know what is going on.'"

Haitian journalists dubbed her "Mother of Haiti," a nickname she uses to this day.

She spends her days creating the Carole Demesmin Foundation, a nonprofit, 501c(3) organization in the U.S. the mission of which will be to fund Haitian aid groups. She has three objectives for her foundation: improving the environment by supporting groups that plant trees, providing health care for AIDS patients, and establishing a legal fund for immigrants.

No small tasks these. Haiti is an environmental basket case. Two hundred years ago, the country was lush and fertile, and produced enough coffee and sugar to make it an important asset to the economy of France. Today parts of the country are desert. Only 1.5 percent of its forests remain. The rest has been cut for use as cooking fuel or, during the Duvalier years, by government troops trying to deprive guerrillas of food and hiding places. "It's very, very desolate," says Mike Dupuy, a Haitian immigrant and a member of the Haitian American Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C. "I flew over the country from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haïtien recently, and it is like flying over a moonscape. It is barren. When Columbus came to the island of Hispaniola, he called it the pearl of the Antilles; it was totally forested. But it has been totally stripped."

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