Spearheading much of mainland Miami nightlife's response to the tragedy in Haiti is a man known as the Haitian Hillbilly. Born Alain Maximilien, this hipster redneck (of sorts) not only spent many of his more formative years in the island nation; his father runs Maison des Anges, a 120-child orphanage just outside Port au Prince. And while (thankfully) everyone on site survived the quake, the structure itself did not fare as well. Both children and staff are all living in tents set up on the orphanage's grounds.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Maximilien lost a half-brother.
But, as you might suspect, this is not Maximilien's first rodeo in that perennially crippled nation. He's periodically been involved with (and remains a staunch advocate of) Project Medishare, a University of Miami School of Medicine group that has been bringing healthcare to the Haitian hinterlands since 1994. And his persona was actually born in that country, after a chat in a Port-au-Prince bar led to a spot on Radio NBC.
Indeed it was from that chat that Maximilien jokingly came up with the moniker Haitian Hillbilly, and it was that inner alter ego who would go on to host the show The Haitian Hillbilly Happy Hour. For the first few months it aired on NBC; but when Radio 1 came knocking, Maximilien moved his patented brand of Americana and became something of a sensation.
Unfortunately, being something of a sensation in Haiti sets one up as a target. And it wasn't long before Maximilien and a colleague from North Carolina were kidnapped and held for ransom in Port-au-Prince's notorious Cite de Soleil slum. This being Haiti, the ransom was stolen a few times before any money actually made it back to the bad guys. And when it finally did, the hostage-holders decided the amount was insufficient. So they released the colleague and kept Maximilien until more loot could be raised. All in all he spent five days in captivity.
And if that's not enough to sour a cat against a country, perhaps nothing is. Yet Maximilien, to his credit, is still out and about raising hell to help his former countryfolk. And it's also why he'll still play a track from Tabou Combo without getting a bad taste in his heart.
That's about as far as it goes, though. See, Maximilien believes that uppercrust Haitians "get their culture from Dadeland Mall, which is why they're only now building their Ed Hardy T-shirt collection." So when he spun in country as the Haitian Hillbilly, he spun stuff from the likes of Mike Ness, Johnny Cash, AC/DC, and the Cold War Kids. "There was no point playing music everyone already knew," he says. "Besides, contemporary Haitian music is about as life-affirming as N SYNC - it just has a different beat."
It's just that kinda contrary nature which has made Maximilien a go-to DJ at both Bardot and Electric Pickle. "They call it open format," he says, "but it really means 'whatever the hell I want.'" So when someone approaches the booth and asks to hear hip-hop, the Hillbilly will throw down a rarity from KRS-One. And if he's in the mood for some obscure surf instrumental, he'll follow up with that, no questions asked. "My sense is there is not gonna be anyone in the city playing what I'm playing tonight," he says. And this time, rest assured, he's not joking.
No Hillbilly - Haitian or otherwise - could do this if they weren't ensconced in a suitable venue though, and here Maximilien counts himself among the very fortunate few. "I may never get a job on the Beach," he admits. "But I'm lucky to play in places where people get it."
And get it they do. At the Vagabond's "For the Love of Haiti" benefit, no one minded a bit that the Hillbilly swilled from a trough that included '60s-era Italian and Turkish outtakes of America garage rock. Nor did they seem to miss the fact that Maximilien didn't bother playing Boukman Eksperyans or any other of the island's mizik rasin. Roots are all about where you dig them. And if you dig it for yourself first, there's a damn good chance that everyone will dig right along with you. Even a Haitian Hillbilly knows that.
The Haitian Hillbilly's Personal Top Five:
5) "Juicy Lucy," Tabou Combo
4) "Chick-a-Boom," Joe Bataan
3) "Kingdom Come," Sir Lord Baltimore
2) "Richard III," Supergrass
1) "Let My Baby Ride," R.L. Burnside
The Haitian Hillbilly. Tuesdays at Purdy Lounge, Miami Beach. Wednesdays at Bardot, Miami. Thursdays at Electric Pickle, Miami. myspace.com/haitianhillbilly