His Music Rules in Haiti: Sweet Micky's provocative music moves Haitians with an infectious beat and political overtones
By Elise Ackerman, Miami New Times, 29 May 1997
"First thing, after I establish my power, which would be very strong and necessary, I would close that congress thing. La chambre des deputes. Le senat." He claps his hands. "Out of my way." For the first year he would outlaw all strikes and demonstrations...
To restore order in the streets, he would bring back the army, which was dismantled by Aristide in order to forestall future coup attempts. "If something was wrong with the army, all you had to do was fix it."
Two years ago, when a Haitian magazine identified entertainer Michel Martelly as one of the most popular men in Haiti along with then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Martelly responded by unveiling his political platform. "If I am elected president, I will perform nude on top of the National Palace," he jested in an interview in Haiti Demain, a monthly published in Port-au-Prince.
At the time, Martelly was living in a condo on Miami Beach, a long way from the snow-white National Palace and its Dante-esque history. He had a regular gig at the Promenade on Ocean Drive, where his band Sweet Micky performed compas, rhythmic Haitian dance music. He was 34 years old and could pack the house, converting the dance floor into a hypnotic whirl of bodies responding to his groove. In between songs, Martelly bantered with the audience. He delighted in shocking his fans -- mostly conservative Haitian emigres -- with crude comments about women or provocative remarks about politics. He made no secret of his support for the Haitian military, which had overthrown Aristide in a bloody coup in 1991.
By the time the article was published in April 1995, Aristide had been reinstated by U.S. forces and plans were being laid for a democratic transition. Martelly released a new song, "Prezidan," an exuberant ditty that called for a president who played compas. "Let's talk about this," the song begins. "Everybody thinks we're joking.... Some friends say that Micky is losing his head."
The lyrics refer to Martelly's mock candidacy, an idea that most Haitians find outrageous not only because of the entertainer's reputation as a hedonist playboy, but also because of his well-known enthusiasm for the military coup. "This is Sweet Micky at the army headquarters," Martelly raps in the song.
"This is the president at the National Palace."
The tune caught on. Haitians who opposed Aristide delighted in its cheerful nihilism. Others dismissed the song's political overtones and focused on its infectious beat. Whenever Martelly spent time in Haiti, he was hailed on the street as "prezidan-mwen!" (my president). The greeting was a joke, but as it was repeated by thousands of people, Martelly started to enjoy the sound. That summer Manno Charlemagne, a fellow musician and a long-time friend, was elected mayor of Port-au-Prince. Clark Parent, a senator and a folksinger, was running to succeed Aristide. Why not Martelly?
In Miami, Martelly changed the message on his answering machine. "This is the president," he blustered. "I'm not here right now. Leave your name. I'll get back to you."
It is 40 minutes shy of midnight on a recent Sunday night, and cars have just begun to pull into the parking lot of the Days Inn near Miami International Airport. Martelly is relaxing in the cool night air, waiting for his guitar player, Alex Tropnas, who is late for their show at the motel's Spirit lounge. There are three people in Sweet Micky. The third, Carrie Legaganeur, is substituting for bass player Welton Desire, who remained in Haiti for want of a U.S. visa.
Martelly has wrapped a scarf around his head Arab-style and is wearing a college T-shirt and jeans. A parade of arriving fans vies for his attention. Pausing, he greets each person individually. He claps the men on the back and beams at the females, touching arms, waists, shoulders, allowing his hand to linger long enough for the women to know the contact is not accidental.
Off-stage flirtation is as much a part of the Sweet Micky experience as is on-stage obscenity. Martelly makes sure his fans feel appreciated as well as entertained. "People come here and pay their money, and they want to have fun," Martelly explains. "You'll see. Once we get on-stage, we are going to be going crazy. People will be going crazy. It's our way of doing things, because we believe that after a week of stress, especially in the Haitian community, where everything is trouble, everything is problem, you need to give them the most you can so they can be happy and forget."
Martelly's voice is low and relaxed, like a cat's purr. He communicates in an improvised English that is enriched by the rhythms of his mother languages, Haitian Creole and French. When he performs he usually mixes the slang of all three languages, producing an upbeat babel of vulgarity.
Tonight's show starts clean. The crowd is made up of middle- and upper-middle-class professionals. The women are in tight cocktail shifts, flowing Indian prints, oversize polo shirts. The men sport oxford cloth, tight T-shirts, cotton blends. They are business people specializing in import-export, health-care workers, teachers, police officers on their night off, secretaries. They wait easily as Martelly moves behind his electronic keyboard, on which he plays a compas that sounds like a slowed-down Dominican merengue. With each song, the energy level rises. Soon nearly everyone is dancing. Couples rock closely together, umbilically bound to the beat.
"Sweet Micky is a very good entertainer," comments Mushy Wiedmaier, an ethnomusicologist and a member of the group Zekle. "If you ask the typical person who goes to hear Sweet Micky what they are doing, they'll say, 'Well, I'm going to have fun at a Sweet Micky bal [party],' because he doesn't want to hear about politics, he doesn't want to hear about social problems, he just wants to dance and jump."
Patrick Juste, owner of Les Cousins, a Miami boutique specializing in Haitian art, literature, and music, says that Martelly is the top-selling Haitian artist in South Florida. "His music moves," Juste observes. Sweet Micky's CDs also do well in other cities of the Haitian diaspora, and Martelly was a nominee for outstanding male artist at this year's Haitian Music Awards, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Last year he won best album of the year.
For those who hold fast to ideological verities, Sweet Micky's success is now bitterly ironic. Unlike other Haitian musicians, including those in the internationally known band Boukman Eksperyans and singer Manno Charlemagne, who risked their lives to criticize the de facto military government, Martelly spent the coup years entertaining leaders and their factotums. While Charlemagne and others were living in exile, Martelly operated a nightclub called the Garage, which was patronized by the military and other members of the ruling elite.
Martelly openly acknowledges his friendship with Lt. Col. Michel Francois, the former Port-au-Prince police chief who along with Cedras helped orchestrate the coup against Aristide. Francois was recently indicted for drug trafficking by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami. An avid Sweet Micky fan, Francois adopted that moniker as his nickname.
From cab drivers in Miami to slum dwellers in Port-au-Prince, Sweet Micky enthusiasts say they are withholding judgment on his politics. Martelly's supporters point out he is also close to members of the current government, U.S. diplomats, and progressive rappers like the Fugees. (Group members Wyclef Jean, Prakazrel Michel, and Lauryn Hill stop by Martelly's home in Port-au-Prince when they are in Haiti, and Jean and Martelly perform a compas song together on Jean's new solo album.)
"You have to take [the friendship with Michel Francois] out of the political context," says Gesner Champagne, a childhood buddy who married Martelly's wife's sister. "You might like the conversation you have with that person. You might like the good time you have with that person. It doesn't have to be political. You just like the guy."
Sitting at the bar at the Spirit, Champagne emphasizes Martelly's ability to attract fans across the political and social spectrum. "Sweet Micky is the only one who brings everyone together," he claims. "I don't care if you are from the slums of Cite Soleil or from Petionville [a city built in the hills above Port-au-Prince where most wealthy Haitians live]; Sweet Micky brings everyone together in peace and they enjoy his music."
Stanley Schrager, the former spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, acknowledges Martelly's reputation as a supporter of the military but concedes that he too views the entertainer as a friend. "Our relationship has been nonpolitical," Schrager says. "I admire him very much as a performer. He can generate tremendous passion, intensity, and energy."
During Schrager's tour of duty in Port-au-Prince he spent a few months as Martelly's neighbor. Since Schrager returned to the States last year, the two men have remained in touch. "He's a sincere family man who pays a lot of attention to his kids," Schrager asserts. "He's kind of a quiet, thoughtful guy, a genuinely likable type." Schrager adds that Martelly has not discussed his political ambitions with him. "He certainly is well-known, so he has a lot of name recognition," Schrager muses. "Any candidacy he would undertake would clearly generate a lot of attention, though he would obviously have to deal with the allegations of his closeness to the former military regime."
Martelly was born in 1961. Haiti was securely in the thrall of Francois ("Papa
Doc") Duvalier, a country doctor who would subsequently declare himself "an immaterial being," "the personification of the Haitian fatherland," and "president for life." There was civic order, as nostalgic Duvalierists are quick to point out, enforced by Duvalier's civilian militia, better known as the Tonton Macoutes or the Volunteers for National Security. The Macoutes outnumbered the Haitian Army by at least two to one and functioned as a secret-police force preventing Duvalier's overthrow. Their methods were brutal and their power virtually unchecked.
When Martelly was ten, Papa Doc died and governing authority was transferred to his nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier. Francois Duvalier had espoused Noirisme, a political philosophy advocating the transfer of power from the affluent mulatto minority to the mostly impoverished black majority. Duvalier attempted to accomplish this by confiscating property and suppressing his opposition. But under Jean-Claude the relationship between the government and the small mulatto elite, to which the Martelly family belonged, improved.
Gerard Martelly, Michel's father, supervised the Shell petroleum plant, located in Carrefour. The family lived near the plant, in that rundown part of the city that today is the red-light district. The Martellys were traditionally middle-class, observing strict rules of comportment: They went to church. They did not curse. They ate meals together.
But rebellion ran in Martelly's blood. His maternal grandfather was a troubadour who had penned protest songs against the 1915-34 U.S. occupation. Martelly hung out with the poor kids from Carrefour and taught himself to play piano by ear. Though his parents sent him to the best schools, he was repeatedly expelled for poor behavior. Once Martelly organized his fellow students into a mock orchestra, improvising tiny instruments from his mother's hairpins. Another time he hid a frog in a matchbox, carefully positioned so the liberated amphibian would jump straight up his teacher's dress.
After graduating from high school and unsuccessfully attempting to study engineering, Martelly enlisted in the Haitian Military Academy. After impregnating a general's goddaughter, he says, he was forced to drop out. He spent a semester lying low in Lakewood, Colorado, studying at Red Rocks Community College and working in a grocery store. He returned to Haiti in 1986, just as Jean-Claude Duvalier was heading into exile.
"When I married Michel he was basically a bum," his wife Sophia says affectionately. The world of the Haitian elite is small, and the couple had been friends for years before they decided to marry. Were it not for Martelly's lack of direction, it would have been an acceptable match. Sophia, who is four years younger than Martelly, comes from a respectable family in the city of Gonaives, a hundred miles north of Port-au-Prince. But both mothers objected to the union on the ground of skin color: Sophia and Martelly have light, golden-hued skin and vaguely Negroid features. In their mothers' eyes, the marriage would not improve the race, achieved by blending light and dark). "It's stupid, but that's Haiti," Sophia sighs.
Evading parental disapproval, the couple moved to Miami in 1987. "We really started from scratch," Sophia remembers. They furnished their apartment with discards they dug out of dumpsters. For the first few months, until they could afford a second car, Martelly would drop Sophia off at her job as a word processor at 5:30 in the morning while he went off to work on a construction site. She had to wait for three hours until the office opened.
Sophia offers up these memories of hard times the way a doctor might hang a diploma on the wall. She wants you to know that she and her husband have earned their middle-class comforts. Martelly may be wild on-stage, but in his personal life he is strait-laced and conventional. Sophia, for example, has a curfew. Martelly does not allow her to chew gum or leave the house without a bra. He complains if she sits with her legs uncrossed.
After a year in Miami, they returned to Haiti. In 1988, Martelly was asked to play at El Rancho casino, owned by Joe Namphy, the brother of Gen. Henri Namphy, who served as president after Duvalier's departure. Martelly's cousin Richard Morse, the leader of the Vodou jazz group RAM and the proprietor of the Hotel Oloffson, a trendy watering hole for foreign filmmakers and journalists, worked for Namphy. From El Rancho Martelly moved to a hotel in the outlying suburb of Kenscoff. His combination of dance tunes and irreverent patter began attracting followers. In 1989 he cut his first album, Ou la la, an instant hit.
By the time Aristide was elected in 1990, the Martellys were doing well enough to feel threatened by the former priest's fiery rhetoric. Preaching that it was unfair for the wealth of the country to be controlled by so few, Aristide sought to empower Haiti's destitute majority. The Martellys still shudder when they recall one particular speech in which Aristide reportedly predicted that the bourgeoisie would know the pain of rocks under the sun -- meaning that they would start to feel the economic hardship suffered by the majority of Haitians.
On January 6, 1991, a month before Aristide's scheduled inauguration, Roger Lafontant, a former chief of the Tonton Macoutes, attempted to overthrow the government. Haitians rioted in support of their newly elected president, rampaging across the country. At least 50 people died.
As a horrified Sophia watched from her bathroom window, she says she heard one of her employees tell an angry crowd, "No one needs to touch Madam Michel, I will give her the necklace myself." The man, who worked as an errand boy and roadie for the band, was referring to the practice of tossing a burning tire over a victim's head, a favored mode of mob execution. Sophia used to give the employee her husband's clothes after he tired of wearing them. That day, she noted, he was wearing Martelly's shoes, pants, and shirt. The crowd banged on her gate. But it was securely locked, and eventually the throng dispersed.
Other incidents occurred that spring and summer. One day while Sophia was driving through a crowded downtown market, she ran over two tubes of toothpaste that had fallen from a stall. Sophia offered to pay for the damage, but the stall owner walked over and slapped her. The woman's parting comment still rings in Sophia's ears: "I just wanted the satisfaction of having smacked a white woman."
Sophia was raised to hate Duvalier. Her grandmother had been detained by Papa Doc, and two members of her family on her father's side had been executed. But given the alternative of Aristide and his obstreperous followers, the former dictatorship looked increasingly benign. Neither she nor her husband lamented the coup when it came seven months later.
In fact, when Port-au-Prince police chief Lt. Col. Michel Francois asked Martelly a year and a half later to perform at a demonstration protesting the arrival of Dante Caputo, the U.N. special representative to Haiti, Martelly agreed to play for free. Caputo was negotiating Aristide's return; the purpose of his trip was to arrange for the deployment of a small team of U.N. human rights observers. Once they were in place, talks between Aristide and the military government were to begin.
Several hundred people showed up at the airport koudjay (jam session). As they danced and cheered, Martelly rallied the crowd with a marching cadence from the time of the Haitian revolution. "Grenadier! To the attack!" he yelled. "If anyone dies, that's his business!"
Martelly says he would happily repeat his performance. "I didn't accept [the request to play] because I was Michel Francois's friend," he explains. "I did not accept because it was the army. I went because I did not want Aristide back. I did not want the U.S. to invade. People automatically associate me with the [military] regime. Well, I don't have to defend myself. You want me to be a de facto [supporter of the coup]. I'm a de facto. It's my right. It's my country. I can fight for whatever I believe in."
From a certain angle, Martelly's musical activism can almost be seen as part of a long-standing political tradition in which Haitian musicians have played key roles in social upheaval. In 1791, for example, the pounding of Vodou drums rising from the northern plains signaled the start of the slave revolt that led to Haiti's independence from the French.
Haitians are largely illiterate (fewer than 25 percent can read and write); songs are one of the primary vehicles for ideas about politics, society, religion, and culture to reach the masses. Musicians consequently wield disproportionate influence over public opinion. Unlike Martelly, however, most have tended to side with the powerless.
Among Haiti's legendary troubadours is Auguste de Pradine, Martelly's grandfather. As described by musicologist Gage Averill in his new book A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti, de Pradine was a Frenchman, crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, who made a living in clubs around Port-au-Prince. In the 1920s he began to actively oppose the American presence, penning comic protest songs.
Manno Charlemagne, the current mayor of Port-au-Prince, used folk music to embolden his countrymen in their fight against the Duvaliers and the military regime that followed. Like Martelly, Charlemagne grew up in Carrefour, where he started documenting social injustice in song. By the time he was eighteen, Haitians throughout the capital were humming his tunes of resistance. Charlemagne was forced into exile. He came back to Haiti after Duvalier left in 1986, and once again set about composing melodies for the oppressed. "If Haiti is not a jungle, why then all these beasts?" he asked in a song condemning U.S.
complicity with Macoute terror.
In 1988, as Martelly was launching his musical career, soldiers ransacked Charlemagne's one-room house. He spent several years underground, the target of death threats. After the September 1991 coup, Charlemagne was arrested twice. He fled from Haiti with the help of the Argentine ambassador, barely escaping another arrest. During the koudjay against Caputo, Charlemagne was living in exile.
Nevertheless, Charlemagne is reluctant to criticize Martelly, whom he has known for about twenty years and whom he describes as a friend. "We don't have the same political vision," he points out. "But the guy has the right to be a political conservative." Charlemagne notes that other bands besides Sweet Micky were playing for the army and the political elite at the time.
In fact, as Martelly's cousin Richard Morse discovered, it could be dangerous to perform if you weren't in the military's good graces. During 1993, one of RAM's songs, an allegorical ballad called "Fey" ("Leaf"), was embraced by the democracy movement. One night, when RAM was performing the song at Martelly's club, the Garage, one of the police officers in attendance pulled the plug and threatened to arrest the band members. A similar incident occurred later at the Hotel Oloffson.
Morse declines to comment on his cousin's reputation except to note that Martelly does have friends among the military and police. "He's a hard-working musician," he adds. "He does what the public likes. He's got personality on-stage. He creates fans, and he works and takes care of his fans."
Martelly's political sympathies aside, his choice in music alone would still make him a misfit among more socially aware Haitian musicians. Unlike the roots music played by Morse and Charlemagne, which incorporates African rhythms and elements of the Haitian folk and peasant tradition, compas was born in the 1950s and 1960s in middle-class dancehalls. Early compas lyrics occasionally dealt with political and social issues. After Duvalier assumed power, however, any critical musical commentary was stifled.
"Compas has the disadvantage of being linked to the ascendant middle class under Duvalier," observes musicologist Gage Averill. "The lyrics are largely apolitical, and they don't deal with the social realities that the majority of Haitians face. A lot of people would say compas is lighthearted party music that is played when you have dictators in power."
Martelly becomes visibly frustrated when confronted with the comment that he is a Macoute entertainer. "I am a musician," he huffs. "I play for people who pay to get in. I don't care if you are a Macoute, if you are gay or lesbian, if you are a human rights abuser or if you believe in human rights. As a matter of fact, I have been criticized for being a Macoute. But do you know that all the Lavalas [Aristide supporters] are my friends now? They are all begging me to play for them. They are all begging me to write songs for them. Did you know that? So if I do that are they going to start calling me a Lavalas? Am I going to change from Macoute to Lavalas?"
Although Martelly claims politics is not a factor in his relationship with his fans, his popularity with members of the Haitian army was boosted by his willingness to give the military the benefit of the doubt. Human rights abuses? Martelly claims the reports of thousands of killings and other atrocities committed during and after the coup are greatly exaggerated.
"To be honest, one thing I can tell you about the army [is that] if they did kill people, if they did, it was during the coup d'etat," Martelly declares. "And I know that a coup d'etat is not like a party. A coup d'etat is a coup d'etat. You will definitely find people who went over the limit. You will find people like that. Just like you find people now doing things they shouldn't be doing. But don't make me say that Michel Francois killed people or the Macoutes killed people, because I wasn't there. Just like nowadays there are people being shot, and I can't tell you who is pulling the trigger."
U.S. forces restored Aristide to the presidency on October 15, 1994. Martelly says he was surprised to hear his music blaring from U.S. tanks as they rumbled through the streets of Port-au-Prince. Even more surreal was the fact that his older brother Gerard, a U.S. Army officer, was part of the invading force.
Resigned to the U.S. presence, Martelly and Sophia eventually found themselves on friendly terms with high-ranking U.S. officers. Martelly taped a public service announcement appealing to the population to refrain from violence.
Martelly and Sophia decided to give the new government a chance, but emotionally they remained on edge. Although the U.S. State Department reported that "Haiti's human rights climate improved dramatically" after Aristide's return, extrajudicial killings continued. In 1995 the human rights monitors from the United Nations/ Organization of American States International Civilian Mission reported twenty execution-style murders. The victims were either former members of the Haitian army, attaches (secret police controlled by Michel Francois), or members of the Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), a notorious paramilitary organization. (In comparison, human rights observers counted 340 extrajudicial killings and 131 disappearances during the first five months of 1994, when the military regime was still in power.)
In February 1995 purported hit lists started circulating in the capital, anonymously threatening Aristide's opponents with assassination. Martelly's name was on one of the lists. His wife received a copy.
Initially, Sophia says, the list did not alarm her. The band had concert dates scheduled throughout the spring, and Martelly left on tour as planned in mid-March. A few days later an outspoken right-wing leader, whose name appeared on the same list, was murdered. Sophia began to worry that perhaps the danger was real. She told her husband not to come back; she remained in Port-au-Prince with their two young sons.
They waited almost a year for things to cool down before Martelly returned to Haiti. While living in Miami, Martelly released two CDs. The first, Pa Manyen (Don't Touch), contained the song "Prezidan." The second, I Don't Care, I Don't Give a Shit, was an unsubtle retort to Haitians who wanted to persecute him for having played for members of the military.
In January 1996 Martelly received a letter bearing the elegant insignia of the Port-au-Prince mayor's office. The letter was addressed to "Maestro Sweet Micky" from Manno Charlemagne. "My dear Michel," the mayor wrote, "I have the great pleasure of informing you that the city of Port-au-Prince keenly desires your participation in the upcoming Carnival festivities."
The letter was only three sentences long, belying the extensive controversy that accompanied the mayor's decision. "When Manno Charlemagne invited Sweet Micky to come to the Carnival, there was a very negative reaction from a number of people," recalls Michele Montas, the head of the newsroom at Radio Haiti-Inter, an independent station that was shut down by Duvalier. When it reopened in 1986, the station was violently attacked by the military, and it was forced to close again for the duration of the military government. "The reaction was that he was a putschist," Montas remembers. "Why is he coming back? And why is he being given the red carpet treatment?"
Charlemagne says he invited Martelly because he was a popular entertainer with a strong following among the population. Martelly boasts that Charlemagne was forced to invite him "because they couldn't have a Carnival without me!" The day of Martelly's arrival, thousands of fans mobbed the airport, turning his homecoming into an impromptu street party. Later that week Charlemagne and Martelly performed together at a Petionville nightclub.
Buoyed by his boisterous reception, Martelly appeared in a skirt, scandalizing his more conservative fans. The teledyol, the rumor mill that is the Haitian community's unofficial news service, started up overnight. Not only was Martelly a Macoute, he was also gay.
It was exactly the response Martelly had been waiting for. Dressing for Carnival, he donned a shaggy pink wig and women's undergarments, amply padded to produce the desired curvaceous effect. "The day he came out with the wig and the bra, the country fell apart," Sophia laughs.
More important, Martelly got his point across: "You guys are saying I am a Macoute. Well, if you want me to be a Macoute, I am a Macoute. Whoever is saying I am a Macoute, I don't care. If you see me as a Macoute, then I'm a Macoute. If you see me as gay, I'm gay. What you think of me is no problem, as far as I am concerned. You have the right to think what you want. I know who I am, and that's the main thing."
Martelly's parade float, piled high with speakers, approached the reviewing stand in front of the National Palace. In past years, under the military regime, Martelly had delighted the crowd by taunting Cedras. He was said to be the only person who could publicly ridicule the coup leaders and get away with it. The democratic government now headed by Pres. Rene Preval would get off no easier.
"Preval!" Martelly called out. "This is the president talking to another president. Don't forget, you're only there for five years. I'm here for life. Because I am in the streets!"
Martelly remembers the scene: "When I got on top of my float I told him, 'President, I want to see you dancing. I don't want to see you dancing with your girlfriend; this would be too easy. I want you to get somebody from the crowd.' And I said, 'Wait, wait, wait. I'm going to choose that bitch,' and I went on top of the float, and I said, 'Hey you, go to the president,' and I said [to Preval], 'Now wait for me. When I tell you to move to the right, you move to the right.'"
To the delight of the crowd, Preval obeyed Martelly's instructions, waggling his hips right and then left and thrusting his pelvis forward and back. "I don't know if it's because I'm a star that the response was always good," Martelly brags. "But Cedras was cool, and Preval was cool."
That particular Carnival would prove to be the high point of Martelly's relationship with the democratic government. This year, Martelly says, the government refused to pay him for his performance at the February Carnival, and he had to raise money from private investors to cover the costs of participating in the three-day street party. On the first day of the festivities, he claims, someone from the government confiscated the key to the truck that was pulling his float, so he couldn't join in the parade. The following day, when Martelly finally passed the reviewing stand, he screamed insults. The government officials were a bunch of thieves, he yelled. "I told the truck driver not to stay around here," he remembers. "I wouldn't play music for these people. They aren't doing anything for the country; they aren't doing anything for nobody."
Lounging on a platform bed that is the center of social activity in their airy split-level home, Martelly and his wife tick off their complaints, shared by many Haitians. There is no electricity. There is no water. Common crime has exploded.
Ensconced in the Port-au-Prince hills, miles above the slums that ring the harbor, the Martellys would appear to be sheltered from the chaos below. Their neighbors are Western diplomats. On one side is the Canadian ambassador. Down the road is Cedras's former home, which had been leased by the U.S. government. The Martellys buy water by the tankful. A private generator provides electricity. An armed security guard watches the gate.
But even in Petionville, they can't escape the ubiquitous poverty or the sense that the country is heading toward anarchy. Even in this hillside city the roads are unpaved. The streets that do have asphalt are in shabby condition. The poor live side by side with the wealthy, crammed into subdivided homes that have been converted into suburban shantytowns.
"A lot of people have kids that study under the light poles in the streets," Sophia notes. "If there's no power they can't study. It's a vicious circle."
"We are going down the drain, and I don't know how far we have to get before we start thinking straight," Martelly declares. "How far are we going to go? There's no more forest in Haiti. It doesn't rain in Haiti any more. Who is going to take care of that? Haiti doesn't produce anything. We produce rocks. The good land is eroding. There is nothing being done to keep it. So we only have rocks everywhere. No trees, nothing."
"People still believe in black magic here. They believe in Vodou and stuff like that. This is all bullshit. It has to do with our culture. We have to respect some stuff. There are vibes coming from these things, okay. But if that was [effective], why didn't people use Vodou to find water, food and stuff? You have to be real. You need to have power and telephones. We don't even have that--I can buy a generator. But you need money for diesel to put in the generator. Which means the rich can survive, but nothing is being done to help the country itself. I won't say the poor, because everyone is going to die someday. It's not the people, it's the country [that needs to be saved]. We may not be able to save people who are sick and dying, but let's save their children. Let's save the next generation."
Martelly and Sophia blame Aristide for inflaming the poor against the rich and precariously dividing the country. "In the past ten years Haiti has changed dramatically," Martelly says. "It used to be a country under a strong regime. Now it's a jungle. It's like anyone can slap anyone else anywhere, anytime. As a matter a fact, not anyone can slap anyone else. The poor can slap the rich and the rich cannot even slap them back."
Last month Jean-Claude Duvalier gave an interview with a Miami radio station, expressing his desire for a reconciliation with the people of Haiti. His comments were rebroadcast in Port-au-Prince and immediately provoked an uproar. "Everyone is asking for Duvalier," Sophia asserts, vehemently contradicting the government's declarations to the contrary.
If Haitians are ready to accept a government led by Jean-Claude Duvalier, the despised former dictator, why not one led by Michel Martelly, a popular entertainer?
"I think Haiti would change under someone like me," Martelly muses. "You have to believe in what you are doing. You need to know where you are coming from and where you are going. You need to know the problems, and I do. My message is simple. I just want the country to be prosperous. I don't want the kids to beg in the street. I want people to care about the environment."
Martelly refrains from openly declaring his ambitions. "It's a joke," he protests when pressed. "I am a target already, without doing anything," he says, noting that presidential candidates have a way of getting assassinated in Haiti. "After this interview, they might kill me, depending on what you say. You never know."
Still, Martelly is not afraid to reveal that he has given serious thought to his philosophy of government. "First thing, after I establish my power, which would be very strong and necessary, I would close that congress thing. La chambre des deputes. Le senat." He claps his hands. "Out of my way." For the first year he would outlaw all strikes and demonstrations.
He denies that he is seeking power. "You don't know what power I have in this country right now," he insists. Rather, he argues that the Haitian government is paralyzed by strife and needs a Fujimori-style solution. He would tell the voters: "Give me one year. And if you want me out, you just ask me to get out and I get out."
To restore order in the streets, he would bring back the army, which was dismantled by Aristide in order to forestall future coup attempts. "If something was wrong with the army, all you had to do was fix it," Martelly asserts. Martelly would use the army to reforest the country. "Every Sunday we would go out and each person would plant a tree," he extemporizes. "If the president had his band there, and if afterward it's a big party, well I don't care. We need to find ways to get back together, to bring back unity, to rediscover the will to do things together for the same cause."
Martelly emphasizes that he is not against Preval or Aristide. Until last summer, when he left Haiti to tour with the band, he regularly played soccer at the National Palace with members of Preval's security detail. He even ended up campaigning for a friend, Jean-Marie Fourel Celestin, who was running for the Senate on the Lavalas Family ticket. Celestin, a former colonel and army medical doctor, followed Aristide into exile in 1991. Upon Aristide's return, Celestin was placed in charge of security at the National Palace. Aristide nominated him for chief of police in December 1995, but the appointment was nixed by the Senate after Celestin was accused of accepting an $80,000 bribe in alleged exchange for releasing drug dealers from prison.
On vacation in Jacmel, Martelly ran into Celestin, who asked if he would sit on his campaign truck. Martelly laughs as he remembers his conversations with voters. "I said, 'Vote for this guy, but don't vote for Lavalas because Lavalas is fucked up.' He said, 'That's the way you are helping me?'" Celestin won, though the election was marred by accusations made by his opponents that Celestin had hired armed men to intimidate voters. Martelly says he has no way of knowing whether or not the accusations are true, but he notes that he didn't see any people with weapons when he was in Jacmel.
If Martelly decides to run for political office, his friendships with people like Celestin and Michel Francois will inevitably come under scrutiny. Formal charges of drug-dealing and gun-running against some of Martelly's closest associates will raise other questions. Eddy Aurelien, a Little Haiti businessman who owned the North American distribution rights to at least five of Martelly's albums, was arrested last October for allegedly selling $3000 worth of crack cocaine to a DEA informant. He subsequently jumped bail and is believed to be in Haiti.
Gesner Champagne, Martelly's childhood friend, pleaded guilty last year in Miami to attempting to illegally ship 48 handguns to Haiti. The arrest -- and the fact that Martelly put up the money to post Champagne's $150,000 bail -- was big news in Haiti. Champagne is the nephew of Claude Raymond, a retired army general who served as minister of the interior and defense under Francois Duvalier. Champagne says he purchased the handguns on behalf of individuals and security companies in Haiti, and that he had first obtained legal clearance from Haitian police authorities.
"Unfortunately I came from a family that was involved with the Duvalier regime, so I was accused of wanting to overthrow the government," Champagne says. "But as far as I know you don't overthrow the government with handguns." He swears that neither Martelly nor Raymond had any connection to his business and that it was a purely commercial venture.
Martelly shrugs at the charges against his friends, pointing out that Aurelien is innocent until proven otherwise. "I still don't know anything," he says. "When I dealt with him, it was about music." But he is sure that Champagne was not involved in any political plot. As for himself, he's obsessed with staying clean. "See the label I have?" he asks, referring to the scrutiny he is subject to for performing during the coup years. "If I was doing drugs, if I was involved in anything bad, I would be caught already."
Night is ebbing, and Martelly is still doing his show at a club in Miami. He has momentarily stopped playing keyboard and is singing solo to the crowd. "Come and listen to what I heard from St. Michel," he croons. "One day after Carnival I got a message. He said when you have time come and stop by, because I have things to tell you."
The song is about a real incident. After the angry scene at Carnival this year his mother had a dream in which she was visited by his patron saint. When Martelly went to church he received a message while there, and it is something he wants to share with his fans.
"Micky, you have to lay low some times," he sings, relaying what the saint told him. "You are not supposed to judge the people." The song is included on his new CD, Aloufa, which will be released in June. Martelly thinks it will surprise his fans.
"I want to show them I have something better inside," he says. "To most of them I am more like a motherfucker. They don't think that I am the type of person who would go to church, or who would pray. But I probably pray more than they do. To be honest with you, this is probably the real Micky.