By Alva James-Johnson
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted May 16 2007
As the reigning queen of Haitian song, Emeline Michel infuses her music with the essence of her homeland.
It serves as a guide, she said, as she travels the globe soothing Haitian expatriates with the sultry sounds of their Caribbean country.
"The majority of us live with a dream in our hearts that we can live in our country again," Michel said in an interview from her Providence, R.I., home. "I don't think about simply making money with the songs. I'm singing my life."
Michel, an internationally acclaimed artist and musical icon in Haiti, France and the French Antilles, will bring her passion to the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale on Friday as the headliner for a Haitian Flag Day celebration.
The event, sponsored by Minority Development and Empowerment Inc., is titled "Many Islands, One People: The Rhythms That Unite Us." It will recount the valiant story of black slaves who overthrew their French colonial masters, and in 1804 established the first black republic in the world.
Singing in French and Creole, Michel will combine traditional rhythms with social, political and inspirational lyrics.
One of the songs on her album Cordes et Ame (Strings and Soul) depicts a longing for the mountains of Dahomey, the African kingdom that once existed in what is now Benin. Some scholars believe the nation was the original homeland of the Haitian people.
"What is that sound? What is that sound in the mountains of Dahomey?" she sings on Sa Ki Tire (What Is That Sound). "It is the bird, the rooster singing, take me back to the mountains of Dahomey."
Viejo (Cane Cutter) tells of a conversation between two Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic. One worker asks the other to take money to his family in Haiti. When the second worker returns, he tells his friend that his mother is dead and his children don't remember his face.
To Haitians distressed that their homeland is plagued by political upheaval, poverty and violence, Michel tries to provide hope. But she also aims to entertain.
"We want to have fun, we want to celebrate," said the singer, who performs Haitian compas, twoubadou and rara music. "We're the first black country to get independence. It's fine to be proud."
Known for her alluring stage presence, Michel is part of a young generation of Haitian musicians who introduced complexity, texture, social consciousness and a variety of international music styles to Haitian music. Other musicians in the movement include guitarist/vocalist Beethova Obas and the bands Boukman Eksperyans and Boukna Guinen.
Michel, a native of Gonaives, Haiti, grew up a "preacher's kid." When she dabbled with secular music, her father tried to dissuade her. But she was drawn to the folk songs of her people.
After completing high school in Port-au-Prince, Michel migrated to Michigan in 1987 to study music at the Detroit Jazz Center. She returned to Haiti a year later, and began her rise to stardom with her first album Douvanjou ka leve (May the Sun Rise.)
In the mid-1990s, Michel migrated to France, where she became a popular artist, appearing regularly on French television and gracing the covers of magazines.
She signed with a Montreal record company, which made her one of the leading female vocalists in Quebec. Last year, she performed at an event sponsored by former President Bill Clinton's foundation.
Michel said she is working on another album to be released this fall, which fuses Haitian music with the sounds of Cuba and Africa.
"It's exciting to go and see the different musicians," she said of her travels. "The album is a traveler's notebook."
Michel also recently visited the Dominican Republic, where she comforted Haitian migrants living in shanytowns in sugar cane fields called bateyes. She met with hundreds of men, women and children who left Haiti for a better life, but remained mired in abject poverty on the other side of the island.
Some of the migrants lived in dilapidated housing and needed health care, Michel said. "There were a lot of children living with AIDS, and also the parents," she said. "This was shocking to me."
Michel entertained the migrants with folk songs from their homeland.
"I just told them I needed a choir and they were responsive," she said.
But when she returned to the United States, the images from the Dominican Republic haunted her. So she wrote a song about Maricela, a 10-year-old AIDS orphan on one of the bateyes. Maricela loved to dance and sing, and shadowed the singer as she visited the migrants.
Michel plans to release the song this fall. She said proceeds from the single would benefit Maricela and other children in the bateyes.
She also plans to return to the Dominican Republic in December to give two concerts: one to entertain the Haitian migrants and another to raise money for them.
"I'm a strong believer that there is a God and we're here for different purposes," she said. "Music is one way to take a positive piece of Haiti every place that I go."
Alva James-Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4546.
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