Haiti - bringing music and hope
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When the earthquake tore Port au Prince and the surrounding region apart, the primary needs were getting food, shelter and medical aid to the hundreds of thousands of victims. What possible role can culture - and music in particular - play at such a time?
In addition to raising funds to help the country rebuild itself, Haitian musicians in France are helping their fellow musicians back home in the belief that where there is music, there is hope.
“Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand” sang Stevie Wonder. For Haitians it’s a language they learn “even before we learn to speak” says singer and psychotherapist Dominique Sylvain.
Sylvain, who sings under the name of Joy Shanti, is also a member of the Comité urgence et soutien pour Haiti, (Emergency support committee for Haiti). She was one of a host of Haitian, Caribbean, French West Indian and US artists at a recent benefit gig in Paris’s 17th arrondissement.
The line-up was organised by Haitian singer and dancer Jay-B. No stranger to fundraising, he’s been organising charity events for orphanages and schools back in his native Haiti for years.
And, as president of the Haitian artists of France for the last four years, he coordinates shows to help French-Haitian artists wanting to record an album over here, providing them with studios and generally giving them a leg-up.
When Hurricane Jane struck Gonaives in 2004, he helped collect clothes and food along with Haitian pianist and producer Fabrice Rouzier and hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean.
“I have a lot of responsibility on my back. Each time I go to Haiti, people are asking me for a lot of help. But I cannot help the whole country. I’m not the president,” he says.
However his great grandfather, Florvil Hyppolite, was. And he admits he may have inherited a sense of civic duty from him.
“Things go from generation to generation. I have it in my blood so I have to help.”
At the concert, Jay B performed a rap-inspired version of the traditional Haitian song "Wongo"l. Adapting the original James Germain song, he urged the young Haitian diaspora to return home and put its energy and talent into helping rebuild the country.
There’s no doubt Haiti needs rebuilding but its culture of resistance remains intact says Dominique Sylvain.
“A country is its culture, music, dances, everything. Our music, poetry, painters are still alive so we’ll live forever."
But music has perhaps a special place because it permeates every home in every street in every village or town.
“Music is life, you wake up in the morning and you sing. You sing how you feel. You sing for God. Music is our life, it’s our breath. We learn to sing and dance before we learn to speak” she adds.
And yet the music community has been hard hit.
“Everybody’s lost their guitars. If you don’t have a drum or a trumpet, you don’t have half of yourself. We have to be that other half”.
Jay B says that just as musicians around the globe have been showing solidarity - for example action in France organised by Charles Aznavour in France and an event in Japan - musicians inside the country will help each other.
Most musicians come from the leafy green suburb of Pétionville, east of Port-au-Prince, an area left relatively unscathed by the earthquake, he explains. “Those musicians, the main music industry, they’re gonna help the others”.
He cites the young record label Soleil Sound (Haiti Troubadours, Belo) as an example. “They’re making a big effort for musicians in Haiti”.
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