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Manno Charlemagne: The Bob Marley Of Haiti
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Manno Charlemagne: The Bob Marley Of Haiti

Music Interviews


Haitian musician Manno Charlemagne has been imprisoned; he's been targeted on hit lists and forced into exile. They used to say he was like a ghost with so many people trying to lock him up, or worse, you could only find Charlemagne when he wanted to be found. Well, now, two nights a week at a Haitian restaurant on Miami's South Beach, finding Charlemagne is not the problem.

From member station WLRN, Kenny Malone explains.

KENNY MALONE: Even though Florida hosts the largest Haitian-American population in the country, and Tap Tap restaurant boasts some of the best Haitian cuisine in South Florida, most of the customers at the South Beach restaurant aren't Haitian.

Mr. GARY SANON-JULES (General Manager, Tap Tap Restaurant): They do enjoy the music, but they just don't know this man's history.

MALONE: General manager Gary Sanon-Jules says mostly it's locals, tourists and some regulars.

Mr. SANON-JULES: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

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

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MANNO CHARLEMAGNE (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

MALONE: We sell our country to live somewhere else, he sings.

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.

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: They are not doing nothing for the people.

MALONE: Amidst the chaos, his two sons are missing.

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: I cannot contact them. I cannot get through. I am waiting for them to call me if they're still alive.

MALONE: Charlemagne says he used to be a fighter. Indeed by 21 he was singing again 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 as a schoolgirl in Port-au-Prince, her classmates traded bootleg Charlemagne cassettes, then listened to them in secret.

Ms. MARLEINE BASTIEN (Executive Director, Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, Inc.): There was a time they would round up young men if they either were listening to Bob Marley or Manno Charlemagne. That was a very difficult time, very crazy time.

MALONE: Charlemagne would quietly hold concerts and word would get out. The youth 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.

(Soundbite of radio interview)

Unidentified Man: And we have to let you know that Manno's home was broken into by soldiers and searched last night. Over to you, Manno.

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

MALONE: This radio interview is from 1987 after a coup toppled the Duvalier regime and Charlemagne returned. It comes from a documentary by director Jonathan Demme, who jokes about how Charlemagne's importance has been portrayed.

Mr. JONATHAN DEMME (Director): Maybe he's the Bob Dylan. Maybe he's the Bob Marley of Haiti. Of course what it turned out was that Manno Charlemagne is the Manno Charlemagne of Haiti.

MALONE: Demme was still about five years from releasing "Silence of the Lambs" when he met Charlemagne.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: (Singing in foreign language)

MALONE: Demme recorded this footage while shooting "Haiti: Dreams of Democracy."

(Soundbite of film, "Haiti: Dreams of Democracy")

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: (Singing in foreign language)

MALONE: You pull your Uzi, and I stay cool, Charlemagne sings.

In 1990, Charlemagne played a huge role in helping Jean-Bertrand Aristide become Haiti's first democratically elected president. 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.

Again, Jonathan Demme.

Mr. DEMME: He's just got a heartbreakingly beautiful, fantastically communicative voice. 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.

MALONE: Demme and others mustered international support and found Charlemagne refuge in Miami. During that stretch, Charlemagne wrote some of his most haunting music, like "La Fimen," "The Smoke."

(Soundbite of song, "La Fimen")

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. JOANN BIONDI (Freelance Writer): The song is basically talking to the military junta.

MALONE: Freelance writer Joann Biondi.

Ms. BIONDI: Telling them: You're nothing. You are nothing but smoke. And you too will disappear when the people stand up and open the windows.

(Soundbite of song, "La Fimen")

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: (Singing in foreign language)

MALONE: Two years after his ouster, Aristide was reinstalled by U.S. troops. 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 and became close friends with the new mayor.

Ms. BIONDI: 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 for a number of reasons. Number one, he had no skills, which is true. He did a lousy job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BIONDI: It'd be like Bob Dylan trying to run New York City. But the other thing was they knew he wasn't going to sell out.

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

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: (Singing in foreign language)

MALONE: It's a little more than two weeks after the earthquake. 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 last two weeks, he says. But finally, yesterday, he heard from his son in Carrefour.

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: I spoke with one yesterday and one today. They're all okay.

MALONE: They're okay. For years, Charlemagne has been pouring everything he earned into an apartment in Port-au-Prince. He got word not long after the earthquake: It was leveled.

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: I was planning to go back to Haiti definitely. I don't have any plan now. I don't want to stay here in Miami.

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

For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone in Miami.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHARLEMAGNE: (Singing in foreign language)

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