Emeline Michel: Queen of songs

Garry Steckles, at long last, discovers the Haitian music star Emeline Michel

Emeline Michel. Photograph by Max Desdunes

I must begin this column with a somewhat sheepish admission: I don’t know a great deal about the music of the French Caribbean. That’s not something to be particularly proud of, coming from someone who’s been writing about Caribbean music since the 1970s, and all I can say to perhaps justify my ignorance on the subject is that I’ve spent so much time over the decades listening to reggae, calypso, ska, rock steady, and soca — to say nothing of samba, jazz, rock, blues, soul, African, country, and mainstream pop — that the important music of so many of our sister Caribbean islands has passed me by.

So I felt a trifle intimidated, to put it mildly, when Caribbean Beat editor Nicholas Laughlin suggested I write a column about French Caribbean music. But I said sure, I’d give it my best shot — and quickly embarked on a mission to listen to, read about, and generally immerse myself in the sounds of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti, as well as Dominica and St Lucia, two islands where English is the official language but a French-based creole is widely spoken, and plays a significant role in music and culture.

I was already on nodding terms, musically speaking, with a handful of the most successful French Caribbean groups, among them Kassav’, the zouk pioneers who have made the sound of Guadeloupe and Martinique a world beat staple, and Tabou Combo, who have done the same for Haiti’s konpa. But I was looking for something new — at least new to me. And while I heard some very, very tasty music as I embarked on the research for this column, there was nothing that grabbed me by the throat — or, rather, by the ears. Nothing that made me think, “Wow, I’ve got to keep on listening to that.”

Then — voila!

I discovered Emeline Michel.

As Haitian readers of Caribbean Beat will doubtless be observing, that wasn’t exactly a discovery I could claim much credit for. As I quickly realised, we’re talking here about a woman who has been regarded for more than two decades as the unchallenged queen of Haitian music (an accolade the modest Michel says she isn’t entirely comfortable with), and who, in the course of a career dating back to the late 1980s, has been a globetrotting ambassador for Caribbean culture.

What caught my eye at first was a capsule biography that described Michel as “the Haitian Joni Mitchell” — a complimentary comparison, given the legendary status of the veteran Canadian singer-songwriter, but one which, I quickly concluded, wasn’t exactly justified. Not only are their voices radically different — Michel’s is considerably softer, throatier, and more soulful than Mitchell’s — so are the countries that shaped them. Joni Mitchell is a product of one of the most peaceful and prosperous nations on earth; Emeline Michel was born and raised in the Caribbean’s poorest country, and her music, which often addresses social and political issues, reflects those roots. Before talking about her music and her career, I thought it might be appropriate to share with Beat readers the poignant and eloquent poem (it’s labelled “personal thought”, but to my ears it’s poetry) that serves as an introduction to the artist on the front page of her website, and which was written in 2010, not long after a massive earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti:

Between laughter and tears
The sun is still shining
Because a nation will never die
Because the children
Of Haiti dare to laugh and play
In the middle of torn down buildings
And broken glass
And millions of shattered dreams
I will not lose my voice
And my songs of hope
Uncertain mornings await at the end of the night
But we dare to hope
Haiti is still standing
And a miracle is like the faithful sun
High in our sky

Michel’s singing career means she has spent much of her adult life living away from her beloved Haiti: in France, Montreal, and currently New York City. And during those travels she has soaked up a number of musical influences, among them jazz, blues, samba, and R&B, to go along with the Haitian konpa, twoubadou, and rara sounds that were part of her formative years in the town of Gonaïves, where she also sang gospel at a local church.

While those prolonged absences have been inspired moves from a career point of view, enabling her to become an artist of international stature, they have also been a hardship on a personal level, and she makes no secret of her most pressing ambition: to return to live in Haiti. Meanwhile, she expresses her love for Haiti in music, singing in French and Haitian Creole. As she puts it, talking about her 2004 album Rasin Kreyol: “Everybody knows Haiti is in trouble. Sometimes I feel like I should be there helping. This album is my way to be there. It’s my chance to show a side of Haitian culture that is positive.”

As a newcomer to the ranks of the admirers of Emeline Michel, I make no claims to be anything other than a novice when it comes to her music. But I already have a few personal favourites that I’d recommend from a body of work that includes ten albums recorded in the course of a career that has seen her perform at many of the world’s most important music festivals (among them the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Reggae on the River), and at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. Among my favourite tracks:

From the album Rasin Kreyol: “Bel Kongo”, rootsy, spiritual, lilting, and featuring the katabou drumming of Haiti; “Beni-yo”, another gem in a similar tempo and groove; “La Karidad”, lovely melody and the sweetest of instrumental backing.

From the 2001 album Cordes & Ame: “Fom Ale”, pure Caribbean pop bliss — almost impossibly catchy. It’s buzzing around in my head as I write this.

From the 1996 album Ban’m Pase: “Peyi Mwen Cheri”, a simply gorgeous ode to Haiti.

From the 1990 album Pa Gen Manti Nan Sa: “A.K.I.K.O.”, one of Michel’s earliest hits, another Carib-pop gem.

From the 1989 album Flanm: the title track is almost as catchy as “Fom Ale”, and that’s saying something.

So thank you, Nicholas, for pointing me in a new musical direction.

And thank you, Emeline, for making that musical journey such a delight.