Other than “La Pesonn,” the songs below were compiled in an essay by Lynch Kenol published in 1938 entitled “Autours de nos chansons populaires.” He is an unknown writer, even in his native Haiti. Normally, these songs would be annotated. However, it felt better to write this intro: at least Lynch Kenol’s name will be visible.
The Berlin Wall is going to fall in 1989. Around the world, raising Mao and Stalin considering the genocidal actions has placed the left, communist, Marxist-Leninist, socialist, not yet third stream, on the hot seat of legitimacy. 1981, nonetheless, is one of folk songs and leftist drums: the dream that the world will change fundamentally one grand soir still animates. It’s also the case in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
From the minute the nation claimed its independence, Haiti has been ostracized, and vilified by agents inside and outside of its territory. Today, it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere partly because of this. For the 212 years of its existence, nonetheless, many Haitians have remained profoundly patriotic and Haiti has a history of cultural production to show for their commitment: of songs, books, and other art that manifest hope and rootedness. This cultural history, oddly enough, includes “La Pesonn,” a love song about a Brazilian woman, turned political by its audience.
In the Caribbean, despite the international acclaim for political Reggae and Calypso, Haitians musicians are traditionally, and still today, by far the most political. For one, the infamous Haitian revolution was full of singing; from the “Grenadye Alaso” used during the Haitian revolution that Haitian students today sing in school, to the fact that several of their Generals traveled with their own troubadours, the Haitian revolution was won in song. Coquille, a troubadour during the revolution, was well known for the songs that he would sing about the feats of the revolution’s generals, such as:
Dieu Conduit tes pas
Ferou, Coco Herne,
Cnage, Jean Louis Francois
Pres des Cayes nous cernent,
God leads your steps,
Ferou, Coco Herne
Cange, Jean Louis Francois,
Near Cayes surround us
General Alexandre Petion, who would become the second President of the Republic of Haiti, was the subject of a much-sung military serenade “Petion Ge-Pe-Te.” Years later, Antenor Firmin, a major Haitian political figure at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, would travel, even into exile, with his own bard Gros Sylvestre.
Some of Haiti’s political songs are propaganda. President Jean Pierre Boyer is hated by most in Haiti, and has always been, but the following song, unknown by most Haitians, argued that God is angry because Boyer was sent into exile:
“Depuis Boyer pati pou L’etranger
Nape soufri cou youn chien enrage
Nape mouri grangou aque mise
Nous pas oue donc que bon Die en cole”
“Since Boyer left for oversees
We’re suffering like a rabid dog
We’re dying of hunger and misery
It’s obvious that God is mad”
Even religious music in Haiti is often extremely political. The Vodou song “Jacomel” is a great example. The singer asks “to hand him or her a chair to sit down, to watch them / the country is theirs, they’ll do what they want with it ..”
In the 1981/1982, a short time after Ronald Reagan came to power, a Haitian poet Syto Cave, minding his own business though he belonged to the ranks of those who were against the Jean Claude Duvalier regime, wrote a phenomenal song, “La Pesonn,” about a Brazilian woman he was fond of. This woman was moving back to Brazil and in the song, after the male narrator walks around the city, he chants “bye bye,” to someone special that “I will not name,” or “la pesonn.”
It had been a while since Haitians had overthrown a government. The last big one was the 1946 overthrowing of racist dictator Elie Lescot, known in Haitian culture as “46.” In 1957, a doctor and career politician Francois Duvalier found his way to the Haitian presidency by campaigning as the candidate of peasants and of the poor but also with the brutal, criminal, help of General Antonio Kebreau, who oversaw Haiti’s provisional government. Dr. Duvalier sold himself as the candidate of black power, who would “put wealthy mulattoes in their place,” which he did by murdering and institutionally. Dr. Duvalier would go on to proclaim himself the constitutional President for Life, and as such a dictator, in 1963.
His Presidency was very brutal. He established a vicious militia, the VSN, that jailed and killed thousands if not tens of thousands of political opponents. He banned labor unions, though he himself had led a labor union (a union of taxi drivers), and political parties though he had participated in a political party that was at the vanguard of for-the-people politics, the MOP (the name choice is literally meant to signify an English language “mop”.) He censured newspapers though he himself had been a journalist, poet, and a cultural anthropologist.
He died in power. At his death, his son Jean Claude Duvalier came to office in 1974, famously promising to make amends with his father’s political enemies and to progress the country through an economic revolution. There was a slight economic boost after he came to power but what eventually followed was historic government corruption, though it must be said not the same amount of misery that Haitians knows today. In 1976 Jimmy Carter came to power in the United States. To receive foreign aid, Jean Claude Duvalier’s regime had to agree to not violating human rights like the freedom of speech and the ability to form one’s own of political party. They accepted. Haitian dissidents made the most of this “understanding” and began to not only be open activists but also produce a body of revolutionary art, such as Franketienne’s play Pelin Tet, the first play in Haiti known and beloved by all social classes.
When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980, this all ended. “The cowboys are back” Haitians said. Some activist journalists were forced to go into exile and some were tortured. After this, the leftists who were open about their differences with Jean Claude Duvalier’s regime between 1976 and 1980 went back into the sort of life that they led before: hiding.
“La Pesonn.” At the time, Haiti’s capital city Port Au Prince played host to a very developed bar culture. The Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot, well known in the Francophone world, speaks about it in his untranslated book “Objectif L’autre.” Syto Cave ran one of the bars Trouillot mentioned: Bato Fou (perhaps inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s bateau ivre.) At Bato Fou, dissidents of Duvalier’s regime drank in the same room as the dictatorship’s powerful figures; in his book Lyonel Trouillot tells of an instance when a communist intellectual Jean Coulanges responds to a Colonel who was assigned to track him while he was in hiding asking Coulanges “how do you do” with a courteous “How do you do, mon colonel.” “La Pesonn” began to make its rounds in nightlife culture that Syto Cave was himself an organizer of. Listeners, who had witnessed the tragic and brutal shutdown of the 1976 – 1980 activist movement, turned the song on its head – urban culture had assigned it a new meaning. The song became an undercover political song and the perfect one to song about wanting Baby Doc Duvalier to leave without stating his name or speaking about current events. It was elegant protest. It was art to sing when Jean Claude Duvalier ended 4 or so years of relative freedom of speech.
“La Pesonn” was written for the Caribbean Sextet, a band that mainly performed for the Haitian middle classes and upper classes. It was well known for mixing jazz, bossa nova, and Haitian Konpa into a very cosmopolitan version of the crowd favorite Konpa. What Haitians turned the song “La Pesonn” into was a cosmopolitan version of traditional political songs like “Assassinat de Seide Telemaque,” a title which translates to “Assassination of Seide Telemaque” from the end of the 19th century. The song goes:
“Honneur a vous Borno (Monpoint)
Qui dans l’artibonite (bis)
Aide par Jean Jumeau
Seconde par Hyppolite”
which translates to
“Honor to you Borno (Monpoit)
Who in Artibonite (bis)
Helped by Jean Jumeau
And also by Hyppolite”
The Hyppolite in the song is Florvil Hyppolite. He went on to become the President of Haiti.
Today, “La Pesonn” is no longer popular. The MINUSTAH, an acronym for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, is hated by the entirety of the population and its presence is considered an absurdity by most, but Haitians have not begun to sing the song to tell them to leave. It was established in Haiti in 2004 by bad diplomacy. Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide was forced to leave power by a mix of political protests in Haiti, pressure by paramilitary forces making their way to Port au Prince and the help of the USA and France. In came a force created by Security Council resolution 1542. Thousands of deaths and counting later from cholera brought by dumping MINUSTAH fecal matter and body waste in bodies of water, brutal rape and other concerning issues to Haitian society, Haitians want them out and actively protest the MINUSTAH. Their slogans can be heard on most radio stations. The song, however, is not used for contemporary protest and has run its course.
Syto Cave later recorded a solo album of poems, songs, and skits, which includes “La Pesonn” as a much less kinetic and cerebral song. It is not as touching, and not that well known. It, as a simple acoustic song, does not appeal to Haitians as much as big band arrangement did.
“nan tout lari a map cheche w
la pesonn o
“walking around the city I’m looking for you
the person I’m thinking of, O
Why was “la pesonn” so touching? It’s a song about a man walking around a city, looking for a woman he loves and realizing that she is not there; it seems to be a poetic love song, nothing more. A Haitian communist poet Anthony Phelps once said about life during the Duvalier dictatorships that it had become a time to speak in signs. Perhaps it’s the “bye, bye” at the very end of the song that does it. “Bye, Bye” so that life can begin anew, though there is a likelihood that it does not. It seems to also be because of how the Caribbean Sextet played it: with oomph.