Manno Charlemagne: The Bob Marley Of Haiti

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Singer Manno Charlemagne once served as mayor of Port-au-Prince. hide caption

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Manno Charlemagne

Singer Manno Charlemagne once served as mayor of Port-au-Prince.

Haitian musician Manno Charlemagne has been imprisoned, singled out on hit lists and forced into exile. They used to say he was like a ghost; that you only saw Charlemagne if he wanted to be seen. But now, two nights a week in a Haitian restaurant on Miami's South Beach, finding Charlemagne is not a problem.

Even though Florida hosts the largest Haitian-American population in the country, and Tap Tap boasts some of the best Haitian cuisine in South Florida, most of the customers at the South Beach restaurant aren't Haitian. General manager Gary Sanon-Jules says mostly it's locals, tourists and some regulars.

"And they do enjoy the music, but they just don't know this man's history," he says. "I had a friend of mine who came in one time and listened to Manno, and she thought that he was just singing about the most romantic thing."

Every Thursday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m., you can find Charlemagne here — hunched over a nylon-string guitar, crooning in Creole into a dented microphone.

In Haiti, Charlemagne's more politically charged lyrics helped elect a president and nearly got the singer killed. But at Tap Tap, two nights after Haiti's devastating earthquake, Charlemagne says he's furious with his country's leaders.

"I'm disgusted for the way they're acting," he says. "They're not doing nothing for the people."

Amid the chaos, his two sons are still missing.

"I have kids out there. And you cannot contact them. I cannot get through," he says. "I am waiting for them to call me. If, if, if they're still alive."

A Secret Star

Charlemagne says he used to be a fighter. Indeed, by 21, he was singing in opposition to President Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the dictator responsible for an estimated 30,000 political killings.

Marleine Bastien remembers those days. She now runs an advocacy center for Haitian women in Miami. But when she was a schoolgirl in Port-au-Prince, her classmates traded bootleg Charlemagne cassettes, then listened to them in secret.

"And I remember at the time, they would round up young men, for the most part, if they were either listening to Bob Marley or Manno Charlemagne," she says. "That was a very difficult time. Very crazy time."

Charlemagne would quietly hold concerts, and word would get out. Young people would start to gather, the military would show up, and Charlemagne would vanish. With the target on his back weighing more every day, he spent six years in exile.

In 1990, Charlemagne played a huge role in helping Jean Bertrand-Aristide become Haiti's first democratically elected president. But less than a year later, Aristide was ousted by the military. Charlemagne hid for his life inside the Argentine Embassy in Port-au-Prince. They called him the "Caged Bird of Haiti."

Director Jonathan Demme, who made a documentary with Charlemagne, remembers that time.

"Manno, he's just got a heartbreakingly beautiful, fantastically communicative voice," Demme says. "Had Manno not been this guy — who, for whatever reasons, channeled his art into the circumstances of the people — Manno would be as famous as anybody. So that voice is inside this guy who finds himself gaining asylum inside the Argentine Embassy."

Demme and others gathered international support and offered Charlemagne refuge in Miami. During that stretch, Charlemagne wrote some of his most haunting music, like "La Fimen," or "The Smoke."

"The song is basically talking to the military junta," says freelance writer Joann Biondi, a longtime friend of Charlemagne, adding that the song is "telling them, 'You're nothing! You are nothing but smoke. And you, too, will disappear when the people stand up and open the windows.' "

An Unlikely Mayor

Two years after his ouster, Aristide was reinstalled by U.S. forces. Charlemagne ran for mayor of Port-au-Prince and won in a landslide. Biondi flew to Haiti to cover the story for a U.S. magazine.

"Outside forces, the U.S. government, say, and some of the aid agencies and the wealthy people in Haiti weren't too thrilled about this scrawny little folksinger with a big mouth becoming the mayor of Port-au-Prince," Biondi says. "For a number of reasons. No. 1: He had no skills, which is true. He did a lousy job — it'd be like Bob Dylan trying to run New York City. But the other thing was that they knew he wasn't going to sell out."

Charlemagne himself says that becoming mayor was a big mistake. To some extent, it explains why he's in Miami, playing to a few dozen people who neither know nor understand him.

He writes occasionally, records rarely and, with a changing music scene in Haiti, his is more a voice of nostalgia than political confrontation now.

A little more than two weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake, Charlemagne is sick: He slumps forward, his voice and face buried beneath a baseball cap. The band keeps playing while Charlemagne slips out a side exit into an alley.

He's visibly trembling from the stress of the past two weeks, he says. But finally, yesterday, he heard from a son in Carrefour.

"I spoke with one yesterday and one today. The one, his mother will fly from Montreal to go get him. The other one, I sent money to him today. They all OK."

For years, Charlemagne's been pouring everything he had into an apartment in Port-au-Prince. He got word: It was leveled by the earthquake.

"We don't have a country," he says. "I was planning to go back to Haiti — definitely, that was my plan. I don't have any plan now. I don't want to stay here in Miami."

Charlemagne can't stay in Miami while paying for the apartment in Port-au-Prince, so he let his house here go into foreclosure. He walks farther down the alley, still trembling. He says he's not sure he can finish playing tonight.

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