In Haiti, RAM voodoo rock the only sound of freedom

August 05, 1994|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Sun Staff Correspondent

Port-au-Prince -- Like a "Hogan's Heroes" episode where the captors are actually the captives, the Haitian military government repeatedly played the video of the Haitian voodoo rock group, RAM, singing "Embargo" last year, thinking it was an anti-American anthem.

Failing to read between the lines of voodoo proverb and rhythm, the de facto Haitian government was unwittingly offering up a love fest for ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Haitian masses who are hip to the fact that the band RAM is most decidedly anti-military.

In a primitive society where the boundaries of pop culture are delineated by word of mouth and the ability to buy radio batteries, the band RAM has achieved the Haitian equivalent of superstardom.

Old and young, liberal and conservative, rich and poor find RAM appealing. (RAM stands simply for the original three musicians, Richard, Andre, Milo.) An upper-middle-class grandmother whose musical taste leans toward Percy Sledge says she likes RAM because it makes her want to dance. A poor teen-ager in downtown Port-au-Prince is eager to know any of the lyrics to the band's newest songs. And military supporters pack in enthusiastically alongside their Aristide foes at RAM performances.

In what sounds to the American ear like cheerful island music, that is particularly powerful in these dark times for Haiti and lends the band a sort of courageous cachet.

RAM echoes the ceremonial voodoo rhythms that are familiar in neighborhoods all over Haiti deep into the night, and reflects this nation's penchant for talking in ambiguous but colorful Creole proverbs.

The song "Embargo" -- or "Ambago" in Creole -- involves just a simple lyric line: "Haiti has been taken by an embargo,

And where is everybody? I don't see them."

The video shows Haitians with suitcases "disappearing" from the city because of fear of human rights abuses. The song derives much of its power from the old African Yayati Kongo rhythm, which means "to dance with abandon."

"'Ambago' works both ways -- it's a typical Haitian song that can be interpreted any way you want. Most of the people would take it to be against the government," explains Dr. Gerdes Fleurant, an associate professor of music at Wellesley College.

RAM's ability to play on the ambiguity of Haitian proverbs may be its saving grace, Dr. Fleurant says.

"No other group ever has been able to survive in Haiti," he says, noting that other bands have been driven from the country and have even had members killed.

Though it has one album -- "Aibobo" (Hallelujah) -- produced on a Haitian label available only in New York and Miami, RAM's music has had a bit of success in the United States. The song "Ibo Lele" (Dreams Come True) is included on the soundtrack of the movie "Philadelphia." And the band played at the New Orleans Jazz Festival last May.

RAM -- which includes seven singers, three drummers, bass, guitar and keyboard -- makes mizik razin, or roots music, a mix of modern music with basic rhythms that survived into the New World through the African slave trade.

RAM's Haitian-American leader, Richard Morse, founded the group in 1990 with his wife Lunise, a Haitian dancer.

The son of an American Yale professor and Emerente de Pradines, a famous Haitian dancer who studied with Martha Graham, Mr. Morse came to Haiti in 1985 fresh from Princeton on his own sort of mizik razin search. In the meantime, he has learned Haitian Creole and earned the furrowed brow one gets after years of working in the difficult Haitian system that has included 15 governments since Mr. Morse arrived.

Mr. Morse supports himself by running the creaky, gingerbread Olaffson Hotel -- crash pad for writers, movie stars and now the stage for RAM's weekly performances, which literally make the floorboards rumble as an amazing mix of people cram onto the veranda.

"I came to Haiti to mix pop rhythms with voodoo," says Mr. lTC Morse. "Our music came from Africa -- jazz, blues, rock and roll all evolved from black cultures. We're taking what evolved [in the United States] and mixing it with its pure form that survived in Haiti.

"I had to get people who knew the pure form," he says, noting that the band "is the masses," including voodoo ceremonial drummers, an initiated voudon houngan (voodoo priest) and an economic cross-section of Haitians, not all of whom can read or write.

While some of the band's songs have been banned outright from local radio and people have been beaten for singing "Fey" (Faith) -- one of the band's pro-Aristide tunes -- in public, RAM still draws huge, politically diverse crowds to its twice-weekly shows in Port-au-Prince. The shows go on uninterrupted, though a concert in the southern coast town of Jacmel two weeks ago was a tense affair in which local police roughed up band members and the crowd was afraid to dance.

On several levels "it is powerful music," says Dr. Fleurant, himself a voudon houngan.

And all Haitians are touched by the style of RAM's music because they grew up with voodoo music, he explains.

The purpose of ceremonial voodoo music is to "clear the air, to put people in contact with the loa [spirits] . . . to enhance possession by the spirits," he says.

"How it is working it's magic on you, I don't know . . . but it is powerful."

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