Here’s the best way to think of it: Imagine that the most popular musical group in America — let’s say R.E.M. — has had their music banned from radio and TV by the U.S. government; the only way to buy their music is via bootleg cassette. Imagine that the FBI is tapping R.E.M.’s phones, sending agents to shadow them, and infiltrating their coterie with paid spies. Imagine Michael Stipe looking out from a concert stage to see soldiers attaching silencers to their rifles.
In Haiti, this is not some grotesque fantasy. All those incidents have happened to Boukman Eksperyans, a hugely popular group that weds roots rhythms to fierce electric rock, and whose gentle, metaphorical lyrics have the power to make a dictator sweat bullets.
Boukman (the name of an 18th-century revolutionary Haitian priest) Eksperyans (Creole for ”experience”) was founded in 1978 by singer and songwriter Theodore ”Lolo” Beaubrun Jr. But their real impact on Haiti came in 1990, when the sing-along ”Kem Pa Sote” (”You Don’t Scare Me”) became the defiant anthem of a countrywide strike that ushered in a brief period of democracy. That’s why the current military government, in power since 1991, has pressured the nine-member group.
”We’re singing about the death of that state, because the state that we have in Haiti is a state against the people,” says Lolo, 36. Boukman Eksperyans is touring America behind their second album, Kalfou Danjere. The group had to go to ludicrous extremes to get entry visas from a U.S. government that didn’t want to let any Haitians in — not even ones whose first album had been nominated for a Grammy.
Then again, returning to Haiti is a very dicey prospect. Last December, a popular singer named Manno Charlemagne was arrested at his home in Port-au-Prince, beaten up, and tossed back on a plane to Miami. That was also around the time that Jacky Caraibe, a well-regarded radio-station director known for his support of new music, was abducted and killed by an extreme right-wing group.
But the revolution that Lolo and his group preach with their music has always been less political than spiritual and cultural, based on the controversial rhythms and beliefs of vodou. That’s voodoo to us Americans, but it has nothing to do with zombies and wax dolls. ”Vodou is not only a religion,” explains Lolo. ”It’s a way of living.” It’s also a way that Haitian dictatorships have tried to squelch for decades, because its message calls for a basic kind of ”people power.” ”We say ‘Change yourself and you change the world,”’ says Lolo.
But his message is meant to be heard, not read. Onstage at New York’s Lone Star Roadhouse, the true nature of Boukman Eksperyans’ siren song can be felt: Three percussionists pound out ancient vodou thunder while Lolo’s wife, Mimerose, and his sister, Marjorie, chant tight harmonies, and Lolo exhorts the ecstatic crowd into a rafter-rumbling trance dance. The band launches into ”Kalfou Danjere,” a song banned in Haiti for being ”too violent.” The lyrics promise that murderers and thieves will face not revenge but reckoning at the kalfou danjere, or ”dangerous crossroads,” of the afterlife. The music is an unstoppably joyous noise with an under-beat of cauterizing anger. Its makers are as happy as people can be in a world where Jacky Caraibe has been silenced forever.