Dancing in the streets

Election day in Haiti is more about rhythms and resilience than recounts. In a country that is both baffling and broken, music is an expression of survival, hope anda democracy working to disperse a legacy of fear
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The Independent Culture

It shouldn't work. Nobody knows how it works. But, some way or other, it does. I was back in Haiti for the first time in five years and I was in love all over again with one of the world's most broken and baffling countries. How could I have stayed away for so long? And as I dodged the piles of rotting rubbish, trenches of sewage and garishly-painted Tap-Tap taxis blaring compas music on Grand Rue in teeming, sweltering, downtown Port au Prince, I marvelled at the Haitians capacity for survival, resourcefulness and good humour.

It shouldn't work. Nobody knows how it works. But, some way or other, it does. I was back in Haiti for the first time in five years and I was in love all over again with one of the world's most broken and baffling countries. How could I have stayed away for so long? And as I dodged the piles of rotting rubbish, trenches of sewage and garishly-painted Tap-Tap taxis blaring compas music on Grand Rue in teeming, sweltering, downtown Port au Prince, I marvelled at the Haitians capacity for survival, resourcefulness and good humour.

This is a place with 85 per cent unemployment and 80 per cent illiteracy. Somehow more than two million people survive in Port au Prince, largely a slum city with no infrastructure. Lucky Haitians eat a meal once every three days. During 15 or so previous visits I had thought poor Haiti could not sink any lower. But it has, now joining Somalia and Afghanistan in the top three on the UN's list of most under-nourished countries. Yet, as if in defiance of these indignities, it continues to top my list as the world's most exhilarating - if exasperating - country.

For both Radios 3 and 4, I was back in Haiti for the presidential election and the predicted return to office of the hugely popular former priest-president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected ruler who was deposed in a bloody coup in 1991. The forces of darkness were at it again in the week before polling. Bombs were going off all over town. The airport was closed. Clearly this was an attempt to scare the city-dwellers away from the polling stations, a hint of a possible repeat of the polling station massacres during the aborted election of 1987. There was, occasionally, gunfire around my hotel at night and once while I was having breakfast. It looked like it was going to be a bloodbath. Still, it couldn't stop the music.

One night, defying advice about l'insecurité we drove, as fast asthe broken roads would allow, to the wealthier suburb of Petionville to catch a concert by the pioneering racines (roots) band, Boukman Experyans. In more turbulent times Boukman had bravely continued to perform and to sing out against Duvalierist terror, often facing Tonton Macoutes gunmen in the crowd. The concert was off. Because people are scared to go out at night, I asked? The club owner laughed. No. The PA hadn't shown up.

We drove back down the hill in time to see top compas band, Sweet Mickey at the Villa Creole Hotel. Mickey styles himself as something of a ladies' man and he attracts an audience, predominantly male and muscular, which is not instinctively supportive of a left-wing liberation-theologian priest politician from the slums. These days Mickey's followers flaunt mobile phones. Not so long ago their accessory of choice would have been the Uzi. His music, however, is sweet and seductive. Even I shuffled around the packed dancefloor. Only when the crowd began to sing "we are going to vote with our guns" did we beat it back into town and to the safety of the wonderfully wonky Oloffson Hotel.

The Oloffson - immortalised as the Trianon in Graham Greene's novel The Comedians - is a gingerbread monument to faded elegance and better times. The phones seldom work, blackouts are routine and the plumbing is, at best, bravely eccentric. It is my second home. (At the fabulous mahogany bar a prominent Tonton Macoutes once put a pistol to my head. It was a case of mistaken identity. Luckily, I saw the funny side. Later he bought me a drink). American hacks refuse to stay there, preferring the bland corporate comforts and "international cuisine" of a couple of hotels up the hill. Yet the Oloffson verandah is the social centre of the city, the stage for Port au Prince's political players and even our American colleagues can't resist dropping by for an evening drink, some morsels of gossip - and the music.

Richard Morse, a youngish Haitian-American has run the hotel with his wife, Lunise, for the past 13 years. It is also the base for his racines band, Ram. The social event of the week is Ram's Thursday evening performance in the Oloffson's bar area. Richard has to tread a careful line. In Haiti, every utterance by such a public figure is interpreted politically. Music and politics here are indivisible. His instincts are pro-Aristide but some weeks before the election he'd said something mildly critical of the pint-sized former priest. On the Thursday night before the poll, the goons showed up, a dozen scowling men who lined themselves along the bar, not drinking, dancing or chatting. They just glared at Richard and the assembled revellers. "Are you going to play?" I asked him. "Sure," he said. "Just keep your eyes open for hand-grenades, Andy."

If Richard and Ram were going to play, we were going to dance. In fact we danced like there was going to be no tomorrow. And there was every chance there might not be. After an hour or so, they left. No grenades. No Uzis. But the message had been delivered by this show of strength. And we'd responded with our own. The next day a dozen of Aristide's personal bodyguards - from a San Francisco firm of private "security consultants" - checked in, clattering with weapons "for your protection". The signals were getting a bit... well... Haitian.

At midnight on the night before the election, I went for one last look around town, driving as fast as I could around streets that were dark and spookily empty. Even the dogs were hiding indoors. Barricades had been erected to stop drive-by gunmen entering some neighbourhoods. Just when I was thinking of heading back to the Oloffson, I turned down a street near the presidential palace. There, to my astonishment, was a sound system on the back of a flat-bed truck and several hundred people dancing in the road in front of the Palace of Justice. I got out of the car. I was the only blanc in the crowd. It was no problem. These Haitians had lost their fear. To creole ragga, they were dancing for democracy. Bumping back to the hotel, I got a feeling that Sunday would be all right. And, as it turned out, election day passed without a shot being fired, the Haitians got back their president, and the dancing in the street really began.

* Andy Kershaw's documentary on Haiti's music will be broadcast this Sunday on Radio 3 at 10.45pm. A version of this article will appear in the next issue of 'Songlines'

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