It’s late on a warm Monday night in October, and Haitian Americans, world music-heads, and hip-hop’s broad-minded are jammed into S.O.B.’s, with an equal number milling outside on the sidewalk—too late to get in, too buzzed to go home. Inside, the crowd masses into a sweaty congestion of heaving torsos as wire-waisted Trini star Machel Montano joins Wyclef Jean in an impromptu fusion of Haitian and T&T Carnival fever. It’s the first of the week’s three ‘Clef birthday/release parties for Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101, recorded over the past two years in his Platinum Sound studio.
While no exception to the signature Ecleftic brew of the exotic and the tuggingly familiar, Haiti‘s layering of reggae, r&b, hip-hop, and whatever else strikes his magpie fancy locates itself in Haiti, not Brooklyn’s projects or New Jersey’s Booga Basement, making for a raucous, swirling Creole valentine to his homeland, ravaged by a parade of Baron Samedis profiling in the president’s office and, most recently, Hurricane Jeanne.
The party is a prelude to Yelé Haiti: Dreams in Motion, a series of fund-raisers in intimate venues across the country, featuring ‘Clef and famous friends. Kicking off December 3 in L.A., then December 9 at Glow in NYC—with headliners ‘Clef, Roberta Flack, and others to be announced—the performances are part of his Yelé Haiti long-term humanitarian initiative and will culminate with a free concert in Port au Prince for 1.5 million Haitians, slated for Spring 2005. S.O.B.’s may be a warm-up (for his new All Star Jam at Carnegie Hall DVD, out December 7, as well), but ‘Clef’s calling down the Ancestors anyway: Midway through a performance that’s recapped early Fugees, segued to freestyling in English and Creole, and evoked raw, Marley-esque pain, ‘Clef announces with a straight face that he’ll play guitar with “my teeth and lips—girls like that,” then launches a zany “Guantanamera” riff that propels him across the room to the bar. Already stripped of designer suit jacket and shirt, he whips off his wife-beater, orders a man to do the same, then leads everyone in a win’ ‘n’ jump African-Haitian-dancehall-soca-rara-hip-hop “Guantanamera” bacchanal that sets the floorboards bouncing.
‘Clef’s been dissed for spitting a lifetime of half-digested musical influences in his hip-hop—from opera to spaghetti westerns to country. But let’s face it: All the notes have already been played, all the rhythms already rocked. Today, it’s down to mixing it up with a wide-open, elastic imagination. If world music–hip-hop fusions are trapped in a revolving door of predictability and corniness, Haiti releases the catch without forcing it. ‘Clef expands konpa’s generous swing like an accordion, accommodating other African-rooted music and taking on everything from a Creole rap by Foxy Brown to Buju’s patwah rhyming, so impenetrable it may as well be Creole itself.
“It’s almost too easy to play a konpa rhythm,” says ‘Clef. “And this CD holds a lot of true stories. I go to the ‘hood today, and every kid is already singing the album ’cause it’s their testimony, in Creole—their slang.”
‘Clef’s birthday week concluded with his fifth trip home since the hurricane, this time to negotiate a way past the blockades for 50 tons of clothing and other goods he brought with him. “All I can do right now is hope, capital H-O-P-E,” says ‘Clef. “I’m not into politics. I’m for the people. You go into a territory—what’s needed? Schools, hospitals—’Yo, that’s a fucked-up basketball court. Let me call the NBA and let’s bring a real court out here.’ I’m not affecting whether government is OK or not OK. That should never keep you from helping your country.”
As far back as the early ’90s, observers speculated that it would be cheaper to relocate every Haitian to Africa—a spin on America’s 40-acres-and-a-mule promise—than restore the once emerald nation’s soil, vegetation, and infrastructure. Since then, Haiti’s condition has slid like the mud that buried Gonaïves, from bad to worse to the current state of unimaginable. Yet this year also marks the 200th anniversary of the West’s first black revolution of independence. That makes Haiti right on time—reminding us not only of the anonymous suffering we’ve already witnessed in nightly news footage, but also of the nation’s true and gallant Sak Pasé spirit.