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

Mother of Haiti

A conversation with Carole Demesmin is like a fugue. Themes run in, out, over and under, and just when your ears start to tire and your eyes start to wander, Demesmin gets to a point that, as often as not, is poignant and insightful. It's quickly apparent that careful listening pays off and asides constitute a meandering path to enlightenment rather than a straight one. But isn't the journey supposed to be as important as the destination anyway?

She is a striking woman with flashing eyes, who brushes away bothersome journalistic questions like "How old are you?" with a mystic, vodou-inflected world view. "That I never say," she says in reference to the age question. "My belief is in what we call eternity," she says. "In mythology, for black people, what we call eternity is not, 'go and die and live in heaven.' Eternity is the blood my mother and grandmother gave to me. We reproduce ourselves in another generation with the same soul, the same love we carry."

In corporeal terms, let's put her in her early fifties.

She is polite and patient, willing to slow down and spell things out for someone who has trouble with her heavily inflected English. She's also enigmatic. Spending time with her makes you realize there's always something you don't yet know about her, something more than what she's telling you. People who've known her for years will say as much. "You never get enough of her," says Patric Lacroix, a Haitian artist living in Massachusetts. "There is always more there."

She's a Haitian first, an American second. That's the way it is for many of her countrymen, she notes. "With the Haitian it is just incredible," she says, "because their heart is with Haiti. They may work here to make money and to build a little place for them to go and die there. To build their grave. In the Haitian there is something that never leaves the land."

Demesmin herself has never really left the island. She still has a home in Port-au-Prince, where she returns several times a year to perform vodou ceremonies, to take care of family matters, or to help friends. What have never left her are a tinge of bitterness about Haiti's troubles and a desire to do something to improve the situation. As difficult as that may be.

Demesmin was born in Léogâne, about 30 miles west of Port-au-Prince. As a young child, she went to school in Port-au-Prince and would come home for summer vacations to what she describes as a lush paradise. "We used to go up the mountain at 6 a.m. to go look at the sun rise," she recalls. "The hills were full of wild fruits, mangoes, avocados, breadfruit. They were there because God put them there."

She left Haiti at the age of 15 at the behest of her mother, who believed the political climate at the end of the Duvalier regime in the '60s and early '70s had become too unsteady. Demesmin finished high school in Boston. Though all of her nine brothers and sisters also eventually left, Demesmin's father stayed behind. "He is the type who would come to see us in the U.S., spend two weeks, and want to go home," she says. "He could not live in an apartment on the sixth floor. He is the kind who likes his spring water, fresh water in clay jars."

After high school she earned a degree as a voice major at Berklee College of Music in Boston and tried to get a singing career off the ground. While performing at a college with a band in Washington, D.C., she met the ambassador of the African nation of Benin. Upon learning Demesmin was from Haiti, the ambassador asked her what she knew of vodou. She replied that she didn't know much. No one in her family practiced vodou. The ambassador, however, knew a lot about vodou and about Haiti, she says. "This is when I realized I was not Haitian," she says. "I was a foreign girl who was born there, but I was not from there. I did not know about it."

Over the strong objections of her family, Demesmin returned to her native land at the age of 25 to study Haitian history and culture with the intent of becoming a mambo, or vodou priestess. She studied with a spiritual father, a priest by the name of Max Beauvoir, and with dozens of other houngan (male priests) and mambo throughout the country. "I was like a child coming back to them," she says.

Her coursework involved herbal remedies, folklore, and mysticism. She had to know the thousands of divinities, called lwa, in the vodou pantheon and how to call them down from the astral plane with an intricate drawing, a vèvè, made in cornmeal on the ground. She spent 13 years traveling the country and learning her craft before being initiated as a mambo.

Just as there's more to Haiti than vodou, so it is with Demesmin. In America she earns her living as a therapist, singer, and mambo who makes house calls. She's also an environmental activist and a purveyor of Haiti's arts and culture.

"Carole is an inspiration," says Lacroix. "She challenges people to know, to go beyond pure comfort, go beyond in finding what's there to find the essence of art, the black art which is the African diaspora."

Demesmin's Hallandale apartment is tastefully decorated and virtually indistinguishable from countless other Broward County abodes. The décor -- Florida modern featuring a white living room couch and matching loveseats, and a glass-topped dining room table with glossy-white, high-back chairs -- offers no clue about its occupant. You could just as well be in the home of a Jewish retiree from Brooklyn as a mambo from Léogâne. She lives here to be close to the sea, just as she is when she's home in Haiti.

Only the pictures on the wall distinguish her apartment from thousands of others. Above the sofa is a portrait of François Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture drafting the Haitian Constitution in 1801. Noteworthy in its absence is any representation of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who signed the Haitian Declaration of Independence in 1804 after defeating Napoleon's army and finishing the slave rebellion that Toussaint L'Ouverture led. Toussaint L'Ouverture was raised as a servant, rather than a slave, and was treated to a life of relative privilege. He learned to read and write and rose to become the French-installed governor in colonial Haiti. He advocated compassion and freedom for all people, white or black, who promised to respect the country's constitution.

Dessalines, on the other hand, was a former slave who sought revenge on his French overlords. When Dessalines signed the Declaration of Independence from France, ending the 13-year revolution and the only successful slave rebellion in modern history, his secretary recommended the document be written on parchment made of the skin of a white man, using his skull as an inkwell and his blood for ink.

The ideological distinction is important to Demesmin. Both Dessalines and Toussaint L'Ouverture are near-mythic figures in Haiti, a country that never stopped fearing it would once again descend into slavery. But it's Toussaint L'Ouverture's vision of Haiti she embraces, not Dessalines'. "Toussaint was very far ahead in his concept of life," says Demesmin, looking at the picture. "He doesn't see the white man as an enemy but as a human being."

If her love-thy-fellow-man ethos doesn't quite seem to square with the bloody, atavistic image of vodou, that's because the image is wrong. There's a lot of shock value in vodou, at least to North American sensibilities, but there's also a lot of beauty. Vodou is the repository of Haitian music and history, a way of honoring ancestors and passing down their wisdom. It is a belief system that respects all life. It is entertainment, healing, and societal glue rolled into one.

Vodou is many things, as is Demesmin. She gets understandably agitated when the cultural repository of her people is characterized as dark, sinister magic. "Where does this notion come from?" she shouts excitedly. "Where do people get their ideas about vodou? The movies."

Perhaps the most well-known modern depiction of vodou is the 1988 movie The Serpent and the Rainbow, the fictional account of an American scientist traveling in Haiti attempting to find a mysterious white powder used to turn people into zombies. It's based in fact -- such a potion does exist -- but the story takes a few liberties. People, for example, are not sacrificed at vodou ceremonies (though more than a few chickens, goats, and pigs have met their maker as offerings to appease the lwa).

Zombification isn't quite what the movie makes it out to be either. People have in fact been poisoned by a powdery substance made from witchy ingredients like puffer-fish venom; secretions from bouga toads, millipedes, and tarantulas; and a mysterious blend of herbs. But in this case reality is worse than fiction. The poison causes the victim's heart rate and other bodily functions to slow to almost imperceptible levels. When the drug wears off, however, the victim does not return to his or her normal state, as victims do in the movie. Lack of oxygen to the brain leaves victims cognitively impaired for life. They are, in a sense, both dead and alive. According to vodou belief, the person who whipped up the poison has stolen the victim's soul.

Zombification has its roots in Africa, says Demesmin, where it was used as a form of ultimate punishment or revenge. "In any society there is a penalty," she says. "The Africans didn't accept killing of the human body…. I have never found anything [in African society] where if somebody did something they would kill you. They would [make them into a zombie] instead."

Nor does vodou involve worship of Satan or calling the spirits of the devil, as implied in the movie. There is no devil in vodou. Instead there are thousands of divinities, the lwa, which represent the immortal spirits of ancestors or aspects of the natural world -- fire, water, death, et cetera. Some lwa are playful, some are malicious, some are benevolent. Adherents of vodou call upon the lwa because they are knowledgeable and can help solve real-world problems. The lwa impart their knowledge by visiting the earth during ceremonies where they take temporary possession of ordinary people, often causing them to do extraordinary things such as handling fire, performing great feats of strength, or wriggling on the ground like a snake.

For adherents vodou transcends religion as a Christian might define the word, says Demesmin. "It is a way of life, that is the best way of saying it. Vodou is not just a spiritual thing for the Haitian. Vodou is their spirituality, their way of surviving, their way of living, their way of being there for each other, their way of entertaining themselves sometimes. The peasant of Haiti doesn't have entertainment. They don't go to movies -- that is not made for them; the price they would have to pay is not the kind of money they are making."

In Florida she is something of a vodou counselor, giving marital and family advice to the faithful, helping heal headaches or other minor maladies with Haitian herbal remedies when possible. But for the big jobs, she returns to Haiti. "Certain treatments need the spirituality of the motherland, where the energy is connected to the land, where the leaves are. Certain treatment needs spring water from a certain river to have the energy of the water. I can do treatments in the sea, the simple things can be done here, but where spirituality is involved, it is important to go back."

There is also a lack of facilities here, she adds. While many vodou adherents may have small shrines in their homes, there are no proper hounfort, or vodou temples, in South Florida. In Haiti Demesmin leads colorful, multiday interdictions such as the one at a hounfort near Port-au-Prince caught on tape by a German documentary team.

A man in his thirties came to Demesmin suffering from "severe mental problems." His family had tried modern medicine with little luck, so a doctor suggested a vodou cure. (Such cross-specialty referrals are not uncommon in Haiti, says Demesmin.) In the videotape the patient whirls and writhes on the ground in apparent agony. He jerks when touched, and it sometimes takes two mambo to hold him down. He is either possessed by a spirit, or he is mentally ill. There is a distinction between the two, she notes, and vodou won't do much to help the man if the latter turns out to be the case.

Such cases are physically and spiritually treacherous, says Demesmin. "You are in as much danger as the patient. Working with the negative forces, you need to call on your own negative forces…. If I got possessed, the next person could take over."

Before treatment can begin, the mambo must identify the lwa that has taken possession of the man. Her ciphering leads to the discovery that this unfortunate soul has been taken over by danti, ancient divinities so long dead that they are seldom seen or heard from. It's hard to communicate with these particular spirits because they don't speak or understand the Creole language Demesmin and other mambo speak.

The course of treatment involves rubbing the man's body with herbs and oils, cleansing him in a bath, and sacrificing a chicken as an offering to the lwa in question. It's apparently successful. Calmed considerably, the man is taken from the main part of the hounfort to a small anteroom, where he is placed in the dark to avoid exposing his soul to the sun. Demesmin reports that the treatment was successful and the patient recovered fully.

In another ceremony Demesmin and a dozen or so dancers, most clad in white with bright red or blue scarves wrapped around their heads, pay homage to their ancestors by kneeling and kissing the poto mitan, a post ringed at its base by a wheel of flat-topped cement, where offerings of food and drink are placed for the divinities. Ceremonies revolve around the poto mitan, and most begin with a salute to it.

Later Demesmin and the other participants pluck a live chicken with their hands, kill it, and clean the insides with lime. The chicken is an offering to the gods, who, unlike those of other religions, need sustenance. Vodou belief holds that a well-fed lwa is a strong lwa, and a strong lwa is better able to provide assistance when called upon. The bird is fried in small jars the size of flowerpots to prepare a ceremonial dish called boule zen. The ceremony is performed to harness the power of the fire, and part of it involves adding balls of cornmeal to the boiling oil, then removing the balls with bare hands. "If someone is not capable of doing that, you don't have the power of the fire," she says.

Vodou is the soul of Haiti, and music is the soul of vodou. Vodou music is played primarily on drums made for specific occasions or ceremonies, with accompaniment on rattles, conch shells, and gongs. Mesmerizing rhythms that got their start in Africa and came to Haiti with the slave trade are the signature of the musical style.

Demesmin's music draws heavily on these rhythms. "The spirituality of my race, the mythology of my race, the instrument created by my race, which is the drum, you will find very sharp in each song that I sing."

Her first album, Carole Maroule was released in 1978, followed by Carole Min Rara in 1980, Carole Lawouze in 1987, and Kongayiti-Afrika in 1998. They are all self-released or on the Haitian label Marc Records, though her last effort was recorded both in Haiti and New York.

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 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."

Without trees, topsoil washes away in the rain. According to figures published in the Earth Island Journal, Haiti loses 36 million tons of soil to erosion yearly, a loss from which some observers believe the country will never recover. Denuded hillsides make mudslides and flooding potentially deadly problems when hurricanes or tropical storms hit. To add to the misery, Haiti is also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita annual income of about $260.

Dwelling on these problems would only lead to inertia, so Demesmin concentrates on building the organization. "Most of the time, I create things and let other people work on it. There are so many things with the Haitian country that could be done, I like to just put the seed in people."

Step number one is Congo Fiesta, a dance party/star-studded musical event/ award ceremony that will raise money to fund the foundation. On a recent night at her apartment, Demesmin is hammering out details with her lieutenants -- Edner Jean, a Haitian immigrant who works for the Miami-Dade schools; Akua Welsh, assistant to Sen. Bob Graham; and by phone, Michael Pendleton, a talent agent in Nashville.

Congo Fiesta, according to the literature, will be a "a power-packed cultural celebration led by a stellar cast of world-class performing artists from Haiti, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States. In celebration, [i]t brings and unifies all people together under one cultural umbrella." The plan, says Pendleton, is to kick off Congo Fiesta in Port-au-Prince, then move to other venues including Guadeloupe, Martinique, Paris, Boston, and Miami.

But as if to prove that nothing is easy when it comes to Haiti, Pendleton has some bad news: The party is going to cost at least $200,000 to put on in Port-au-Prince alone. And corporate backers in Haiti are skittish about putting up money until they have big-name stars on board. But such stars don't sign contracts unless the money is in the bank.

There's a palpable sense of disappointment at the table, as if reality is just setting in. Heretofore Demesmin and her volunteer workers fueled themselves on the humanitarian notion of doing something to help a country that certainly needs it. But even though they may have the best intentions in the world, these things cost money. "It's the back end that looks so wonderful," says Pendleton over the speakerphone. "The front end looks a little shaky."

That "back end" -- the money raised by the event -- could be as much as $1 million from ticket sales and broadcast rights for all the shows, Demesmin says.

A couple days later, when Demesmin realizes the show is too close to the beginning of the school year and most people will be spending what little money they have on school supplies instead of tickets, she changes the plans. Now the Congo Fiesta tour will kick off in Miami in January, then move on to Port-au-Prince.

If it does come off, two groups are guaranteed a cut of the take: Operation Green Leaves and OPEC (a familiar acronym that in this case stands for Oceania Plantation and Environmental Consultants). The former is a Miami-based nonprofit that has already shipped some 500,000 trees to Haiti and runs an environmental resource center on ten acres of land in Arcahaie, Haiti. The latter is a Melrose, Florida-based group that owns the patent for processing seeds of the neem tree. Native to India, the neem is a hardy tree that grows with little care under adverse conditions. Its seeds produce an oil useful as an organic pesticide and also in pharmaceutical applications, while its byproducts can be used as animal feed. A U.S.-based aid program planted some 250,000 of the trees in Haiti 17 years ago, but the seeds are not being used. "It's millions of dollars going to waste," says Dr. Charles Rosenberg, director of OPEC.

At the end of the Duvalier regime, when Jean-Claude left for a life of luxurious exile and eventual bankruptcy in the south of France, Demesmin saw people in Port-au-Prince scrubbing the sidewalks with towels. They wanted a fresh start so badly they were willing to get on their hands and knees and clean the country themselves if that's what it took.

But that was 1986. Since then the country has suffered a series of military-backed presidents, coups, and a U.S. invasion. The economy has continued to slide into chaos and the environmental damage has continued, unabated.

For Demesmin it's difficult to live there and see what's going on. But it's impossible to leave her homeland altogether. Her solution is to do what she can from afar in the hope that she'll set an example for other expatriates who've left to find a better life. That is the way Haiti will start to heal, she says.

"All those hopes, they are not there anymore. Every day is getting more difficult. As long as I am still alive, I will still fight for Haiti. I will fight for the land."


AMNH guide to vodou spirits

Operation Green Leaves

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