The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

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OCT 2010 Issue

TABLETS OF HUMAN HEARTS: The Indestructible Cultural Wealth of Haiti

As I sat in the middle of the Haitian refugee camp with the battered guitar resting on my lap, I thought of Mamá Lola in Mexico.

I still remember the thrill of hearing Mamá Lola’s stories by candlelight years ago. We would sit in a slum of Ensenada, Baja California, and this octogenarian indigenous woman—my “adoptive grandmother”—would lean across the crude kitchen table in the darkness and regale me with tales from the Amuzgo-speaking people of the deepest reaches of Southern Mexico. Mamá Lola described encounters with chaneques (the mischievous little people); with powerful shamans who had two hearts that you could distinctly hear beating inside their chests; with witches who could command enormous wolves to do
their bidding.

This was a secret and ancient world—the world of the Spoken Word. The sole thread linking me to the dark mysteries of her Oaxacan town was the razor-sharp memory of Mamá Lola: she alone provided a delicate link between the rural village of Ipalapa and the Northern Mexican city where she had settled.

I must confess: I love the fact that Mamá Lola’s world is not open for examination. I love that private worlds like hers still exist. I relish in the knowledge that, when I traveled to the remote reaches of the Sierra Madre Occidental, I was the first outsider to experience the Tarahumara community I encountered. I was the first foreigner to plow the fields with their oxen, to drink the Tarahumaras’s tesgüino corn beer, and to hear their stories.

In recent years, however, I have grown fatter and lazier. While the spark of fascination with these hidden worlds never died out, I discovered a few years ago that much of this “secret” knowledge could be purchased for a price. During my first visit to Mexico City in 2006, I stumbled upon a book fair held at the National Museum of Anthropology and History. I ecstatically bought bagfuls of books, CDs, and tapes containing the ancient legends, folktales, ceremonial songs, and myths of Mexico, and left beaming—but something felt cheap about it all. As if the butterfly had been captured, pinned down, and labeled in a glass case.

This was the beginning of a habit which I am not proud of: the habit of
purchasing culture.

It’s just easier that way, you see. Whether in Ireland, Egypt, or Mexico, I know with reasonable certainty that I can track down some store where they sell recordings of the country’s folk music. I know I can find some restaurant where, for a few euros, pounds, or pesos, I can watch performances of “traditional dances” to my heart’s content.

Eventually, it would take a visit to a country where the anthropological shopping spree was not a viable option to snap me out of this commercialistic ennui and remind me of my first love.

Of course, I didn’t go to Haiti for the purpose of doing voyeuristic cultural research—to do so under the present circumstances would be obscene. I went in May to volunteer with a human rights organization working with earthquake victims. Still, in anticipation of the trip, I reread Wade Davis’s treatise on Vodoun culture, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and nostalgically hoped to find some of the historic collections of traditional music recorded by Alan Lomax.

Upon arrival in Haiti, however, I would find it next to impossible to purchase music by conventional means. With the unspeakable devastation that struck the capitol, nearly all the bookstores and libraries that appeared in the guidebooks were demolished. I had equally bad luck trying to find one of the public displays of Vodoun ritual such as those performed by Max Beauvoir in Davis’s book.

Instead, I experienced a Vodoun ceremony at a Mennonite farmhouse.

Well, sort of. The Mennonites who drill wells for rural Haitian communities own a compound in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets, and I spent one night at the Pennsylvania Dutch-style farmhouse that they rent out to visitors. As I sat rocking on the porch during a late-night thunderstorm, I could hear the sound of Vodoun drums wafting in from a nearby hounsis, or Vodoun temple. It became a regular occurrence—several times during my stay in Haiti, the soundtrack to my evening routine would be a distant tapestry of ceremonial drums, bells, horns, and voices that make up the infinitely complex liturgy of Vodoun ritual.

This would prove to be illustrative of a broader trend: I could not choose where or how to experience Haitian culture on my own volition. There was no price tag on the music and folk traditions. Rather, cultural encounters were less like turning on the TV and more like falling into C. S. Lewis’s Narnia—I never knew when the veil shielding this parallel dimension would be dropped.

Creole folklore is seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday life in Haiti, and my encounters with it happened in the most unexpected places. I sat chatting with some young men one afternoon while waiting for my ride, and decided to pass the time with a children’s book of Cinderella lying nearby. As I read the French text aloud, the young men began to satirically translate the narration into Haitian Creole; in the process, they translated the European fairy tale into the Haitian cosmology.

The silver-haired Fairy Godmother became Matant Houngan, a Vodoun priestess. The prince’s royal procession became a rara, the raucous musical procession that is a mainstay in community rituals. The young men infused Haitian wisdom proverbs and folk characters such as Bouki, the bumbling Goofus-like character of anecdotes and legends.

The vast majority of these traditions are still verbally transmitted. Young people don’t grow up seeing Bouki on television the way other children meet Donald Duck, Pokémon, Cheburashka, or El Chavo del Ocho—they hear tales of Bouki from their aunts and grandmothers.

Of course, I can’t help but feel somewhat ambivalent about my romanticizing “raw culture,” especially when I consider the socio-economic reasons why Haitian folklore has remained a primarily oral tradition. To what extent would Haitians like to see their own culture more commercialized? It is not my place to answer—only Haitians have the right to make definitive statements on the subject.

The unique enchantment of Haiti, however, is in how pervasive its culture is regardless of its monetary value. In tap-tap buses, graffiti, folk art, konpa ballads, and wisdom proverbs, creative expression in Haiti is omnipresent, with or without commercial endorsement. Indeed, my most transcendent encounter with these traditions took place amid the stark austerity of one of the displaced person camps.

More than 1,300 “tent cities” scattered throughout Port-au-Prince are now home to countless Haitians who lost everything during the disaster. Toward the end of my trip, I joined another aid worker in spending 24 hours in one of these camps. Hosted by the Haitian grassroots organization The Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV) and with the help of a filmmaker from Trinidad, we were there to interview camp residents and document their most pressing needs. The conditions were truly bleak—for the first eight hours of our stay we heard myriad tales of disease, flooding, starvation, undrinkable water, and constant security threats.

The residents of the Croix-des-Près camp refused to be passive victims, however. Speaking with these internal refugees, I also heard articulate expressions of hope that Haitians can build a different future. Interviews slowly morphed into extended conversations as the sun began to dip below the glittering Caribbean Sea. Plastic chairs were produced, and one middle-aged man brought out a battered guitar. When the filmmaker finally drove home to his hotel, I suddenly realized that this had ceased to be a starchy humanitarian assessment.

What happened next, while bordering on the indescribable, could best be termed a “cultural exchange set to music.”

Dozens of us were sitting in front of my tent when one man played a couple melancholy songs of hope for his beloved homeland. Then Louifafe Jean, who would turn out to be the Maître des Ceremonies for the evening, played a more upbeat Haitian konpa. I took the guitar and sang a few Cuban tunes in Spanish, and the ambience transitioned from pensive to outright celebratory. The songs of Che Guevara and “people power” had obviously tapped into a deep spark of hope within the people, and it became a full-fledged sing-along: entire families belted out the lyrics to “Guantanamera.” As we sang a few Bob Marley songs, teenage couples embraced each other; children raucously danced; mothers played makeshift rattles made from discarded plastic bottles; men of all ages drank homemade tafia liquor from plastic cups and laughed without reserve.

Louifafe took the guitar again and launched into a series of jaunty songs with semi-improvised lyrics. This was less a performance than an interactive improv-comedy event: people would call out witty lyrics and rhymes and they were incorporated into a Creole waltz, fitting snugly around a repeated French chorus: “…mon amour est tatouage, cherie, je t’aime, je t’aime...”

As the melodies drifted upwards towards the stars, I thought of a comment an American friend had made once after his first trip to Russia: “When you play music together, you figure out that people are just people, wherever they are.” For one night, all the other adjectives that described us—volunteers, internally displaced persons, Americans, Haitians, nationals, foreigners, rich, poor—were put on the back burner. That night, we were all people—nothing more than somebody’s mother, father, son, daughter, brother, or sister.

All the songs were organic outgrowths of life in Haiti: some were centuries old, others continued to evolve, and some were born that very night. Haiti’s cultural wealth remained untouched by the natural disaster. With the shared music ringing in my ears, my mind drifted back to a Pentecostal church service I had witnessed weeks earlier in Croix-des-Bouquets, where the pastor preached on a passage from Second Corinthians: “…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…”

Of course, I could write out the lyrics of the songs we sang that night in the camp, along with the guitar tablature and the sheet music. Readers could then create a myriad of YouTube videos of Louifafe’s songs—maybe even set them as ringtones.

But that would be like smothering the butterfly under a cold glass plate.


David Schmidt

David Schmidt is an author, podcaster, multilingual translator, and homebrewer who splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, California.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

All Issues