The sounds of Haiti to fill Long's Park
By JANE HOLAHAN
Lancaster New Era
Published: Jun 21, 2007 2:49 PM EST
LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa - Emeline Michel won't stand for anyone sitting down during her concert at Long's Park Sunday night night.
"Especially when we are outdoors, it's always a party," says the woman known as the queen of Haitian song. "We can't allow anybody to sit down. We are always looking for spontaneity and everybody dancing."
Michel, who sings in French and Creole, says her show is "really islandish."
"We use three congas and we will have two guitars, one from Haiti and one from Africa, to give us our roots and show us how we are living now," she explains. "Our keyboard player sometimes plays the accordion and we have drums, but they are used differently.
"The sound is very melodic," she adds. "That is a trademark of traditional Haitian music. Very melodic, very catchy to the ear."
Although Michel now lives in New York, she visits Haiti often and believes her country and its music needs to be understood better.
"You don't realize until you've left how little people know about Haiti," she says. "We are always, unfortunately, connected to Voodoo and black magic instead of seeing the incredible musicians coming from Haiti. When I come back from there I am charged to conquer the world."
Her lyrics often explore social and political themes, which she infuses with jazz, rock, bossa nova and samba.
She tries to steer clear of getting involved with any one government party in the troubled world of Haitian politics.
"I try to stay away from staying too friendly with one president or another," she says with a laugh. "I say what I want to say. Over the years I've got the respect and space I want. But it can still be dangerous. So far, we've only had one incident, where a gun was pointed at me (by the police) in the middle of the street when we were going to rehearsal. I'm not sure why. That was in 2003."
Growing up in Haiti, Michel's parents never wanted their daughter to become a musician.
"They said, you can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything that you want, but being a musician is just a pastime where you end up dying poor."
Michel's father was a minister and she notes it was tough to be singing on stage if you weren't directly singing about God.
"I was hanging out with the boys from the band at 12 in the morning, wearing loud colors and tight pants. That doesn't look good," she says with a laugh. "There was a belief women should be at home, taking care of children, cooking for the family. Your place was not on stage, showing off.
"It was pretty hard until they realized the content of the message and what I write about, to tell people to wake up, tell them that they have to save their country."
Eventually, her parents came around and Michel says by the time of her father's death a few years ago, they were fans.
"My mom is my best supporter. I have to call her for a prayer when I get home from a show, even if it's 3 a.m. in the morning."
Michel says she never really had a choice; she had to perform.
"That exchange you get with the audience — there is no feeling like that," she says. "Singing is curative, it gets me through tough times. It rebuilds me to jam with the band. If I'm sad, it can save the day. It's vital for me."
And writing music is essential too.
"I always find people who relate to what I wrote about, they'll say, you wrote that for me. That's a wonderful feeling."
A few weeks ago, Michel performed a concert in southern Haiti and the huge crowd knew all the words and sang along at every turn.
"I gave them my gift and then they gave it back to me," she says.
She wants to recreate that feeling at Long's Park.
"I am always bringing a piece of my island to anywhere I go."
CONTACT US: jholahan@LNPnews.com or 481-6016
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