When he greets you, barefoot, at his world-renowned Caribbean hotel, often with the distant smile of a man who has just been smoking illegal leaf, you might be forgiven for thinking Richard Morse is a zombie. He insists he is not, but he certainly believes in them. As a voodoo priest, he pretty much has to.
Running the Grand Hotel Oloffson in the poverty-stricken nation of Haiti is Morse's day job. Voodoo ceremonies usually happen at night. But that's not all. In his singular twilight zone, he manages to front a unique Afro-Caribbean rock band, RAM, which is currently touring the UK with "the world's first voodoo rock musical", and is designed to draw attention to the plight of Haiti's starving and dying children.
"At least we don't expect to get shot over here. We're used to playing in front of men with guns tucked in their belts and fuelled by rum," says the 47-year-old Morse, a mixed-race Haitian with a white American father and a black Haitian mother.
Shot, no. Possessed, possibly. Vodou Nation: out of this world (using the local French-Creole spelling) may be the closest you'll ever get to watching a voodoo ceremony. There's no biting off of live chickens' heads but if the musicians and dancers on stage look like men and women possessed, they probably are. Possessed by the loas, or voodoo spirits, that they believe accompanied their ancestors from West Africa to the Caribbean to protect them from the colonial slave masters.
The idea for a "voodoo rock musical" came from the Worcester-based arts producer Jan Ryan, who heard RAM play while visiting a poor Haitian girl, Mirlene, she and her partner Ian Jones were "sponsoring" through the Plan International aid organisation. The UK performances are aimed at encouraging others to "sponsor" - that is, pay for food, education and medical care - for children in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. (As it happens, after 25 years together, Jan and Ian, a lecturer in race relations, will be married in Worcester next Friday, with Morse, in his role as houngan, or voodoo priest, bestowing a blessing on them in a voodoo ceremony.)
"Aid organisations are frustrated that Haiti is being totally forgotten," said Jan, 54. "When we visited Mirlene's village, Terrier Rouge, we were maybe the first blancs they'd ever seen. They thought we'd come from another planet and we felt we'd arrived on another planet. Mirlene, her mother and father and five siblings were living in a mud hut with a corrugated iron roof and the toilet was a hole in the ground outside. She's still there. But for something like £110 a year, we've paid for her education and she's now training to be a nurse."
RAM (from their leader's initials, Richard Auguste Morse, but pronounced as the word) blend electric pop, rock, punk, protest, folk and blues with pounding Afro-Caribbean voodoo rhythms from traditional maman and mitan drums and home-made horns. "If you listen carefully, you might hear the odd Clash riff," says Morse. He started his music career as bass guitarist in a punk band in the US before moving to Haiti to study the voodoo rhythms passed on by his mother, Emerante de Pradines, a well-known dancer and mambo, or voodoo priestess. "What we do is add our own generational influences - things like The Clash's Sandinista! album - to Haiti's two traditional forms of voodoo rhythm: the rhythms born in Africa and those developed by slaves in Haiti."
As well as helping Haitian children, the musical is an artistic attempt at renewing the celebrations of Haiti's 200 years of independence, broken off earlier this year by the armed uprising which ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The dreadlocked Morse wants to honour the victims of the recent uprising, as well as the Haitians who overthrew Napoleon's army in 1804 to form the world's first black-led republic, and the countless victims of assorted coups, massacres and foreign interventions in the 200 years in between. The pervasive theme of the musical is voodoo's influence on the Caribbean nation, where it is a spiritual lifeline against oppression and poverty, but was only recently allowed into the open as an official religion, along with Christianity.
"Yes, you might see our dancers go into a trance," he says. "Some get possessed by the loas, to the rhythm of the drums, but it's a natural state when it happens. You can't fake it." Among them is his wife Lunise, also the band's lead singer, who performs in Haiti's first spoken language, French-based Creole. Morse himself, though a Creole speaker, sings in English, a device which originated when he didn't want Haiti's French or Creole-speaking military leaders to understand his protest lyrics.
Princeton-educated Morse moved from the US to Haiti and took over the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, one of the most famous in the Caribbean, in 1987. The old lady is not so grand now but was once a favourite haunt of celebrities from Graham Greene to Mick Jagger. Greene set his novel The Comedians largely in the hotel, renaming it The Trianon, and memorably killing off Dr Philipot at the deep end of the hotel pool. The same pool remains and the now-termite-infested "suites" are named after Greene, Jagger and other past guests.
Morse became initiated as a houngan a couple of years ago. "It came to me in a dream, that I should follow in my mother's footsteps." He does not hold regular voodoo ceremonies but says: "If it's to help someone, I do it." But he scoffs at the western image of voodoo, of people in trances biting off chickens' heads and drinking blood from human skulls. "I first came to Haiti to study the rhythms. I had no idea how deep voodoo ran. It's a way of life, one that has kept poor Haitians going through slavery, oppression and poverty. There's more to it than biting off chickens' heads. It's like saying that all that democratic societies do is bomb Baghdad. There's more to democracy than bombing Baghdad."
Morse set up RAM in the early 1990s, during the dark days of military rule and the rising popularity of the Catholic priest Aristide. One of their first songs, "Fey" ("Faith"), with cryptic Creole lyrics, became something of an underground anthem for the pro-Aristide movement. So much so that Morse received numerous death threats from Haiti's generals and their dreaded Tontons Macoutes militia allies, leftovers from the Duvalier dynasty.
And not just threats. During Haiti's carnival in the early 1990s, RAM's float careered off a Port-au-Prince road into a dancing crowd, killing nine. The brakes and accelerator had been tampered with. "The threats didn't bother me. I don't mind dying," says Morse. "It beats living in a society where there is no freedom of speech."
RAM's Thursday-night appearances in the Oloffson's lounge became a mecca for those Haitians who could afford the entry fee and the price of the rum punches. Even now, the audience is generally a mix of local politicians, off-duty military officers, former members of the Tontons Macoutes, diplomats, self-styled spooks, real spooks, pimps, prostitutes and dope dealers. Poor Haitian children peer through the hotel's gates and dance to the rhythms for free.
"We were playing one Thursday night. As usual, the lounge was packed with guys with guns bulging from their belts or in their jackets. At that time, most of them were from the FRAPH (a violent right-wing paramilitary group whose title is an acronym for Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress, but is pronounced, not by accident, as frappe, the French word for "strike" or "hit").
"We were singing 'Fey' which was considered a pro-Aristide song at that time," Morse recalls. "I knew these guys wouldn't like it. Suddenly, all the lights went out and our amps went silent. We thought they'd turned out the lights. They thought we had. It was a mutual freak-out. The girls, my wife Lunise and our dancers, left the stage, something we'd agreed in advance to do in an emergency. People in the audience were running and hiding. I just stood there at the microphone waiting to feel a bullet. I don't run in these situations. It turned out it was a routine power cut and we played again later.
"After that, we initiated a wild-west saloon policy. All guns had to be checked in at the hotel gate, like you'd normally check in your coat. You should have seen the stuff in there - .38s, .45s, Uzis, grenades. Sometimes you got real tense stand-offs at gun point because somebody was given the wrong gun on the way out."
RAM were content to play only once a week in Port-au-Prince until the Hollywood director Jonathan Demme, a Haiti-lover and regular at the Oloffson, heard them play and featured one of their songs, "Ibo Lele" ("Dreams Come True"), on the soundtrack of Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks, in 1993. That led to their first tours.
As it turned out, Morse, like many Haitians, became disillusioned with Aristide during his last few years in power, feeling that he had taken on the mantle of dictator that has hung over the Caribbean nation for so long. On RAM's latest album, Le Jardin, recorded before Aristide was ousted in February, Morse appears to criticise the former president for arming his supporters and provoking the armed uprising which was later to oust him.
But its ambiguous lines, which incorporate clear voodoo imagery of zombies rising from the grave, suggest fears that worse is still to come for Haiti; another military coup, perhaps, another US "intervention". Morse says the words of the album's title song came to him in a dream:
I was lying in a coffin, took a look at the
Four men stood vigilant as the boat
rocked side to side...
Soldier out on the battlefield doesn't know
that he's lying face down
The people on the hilltop turn around...
"You know we're comin' back again...
Hey, 'ts OK, you know we're comin' back
Students fight for students' rights,
Workers fight for workers' rights,
Women fight for women's rights
Men just go out and fight, uh-huh.
Two hundred years, bro, how 'bout
a little respect?
'Vodou Nation' is at the Hackney Empire, London E8 (020-8985 2424) 27-31 July; Hippodrome, Birmingham (0870-730 1234) 6-7 Aug; Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0870-905 5060) 10-14 AugReuse content