(Editor's note: We went with the traditional spelling of "Vodou" for this article.)
I listen to a lot of music in my never-ending search for new sounds. In the diverse sonic terrain I've roamed, the work of Haiti's Richard A. Morse stands out as a unique artistic creation.
For the past two decades Morse has led RAM, a Haitian band specializing in mizik rasin a stunning genre that blends traditional Vodou music with rock and reggae influences.
I spoke with Morse via phone as he was preparing for his weekly Thursday night performance at Port-au-Prince's historic Hotel Olofsson. Morse has managed the Olofsson since 1987 and the hotel has functioned as a concert venue and base of operations for RAM throughout their existence.
NUVO: In the early '80s you were in a punk band called The Groceries. How did you make the transition from punk to working with Vodou music in Haiti?
Richard A. Morse: I started playing punk music in 1979. Punk rock was something that made me feel like I could play music, because I'm not a musician. We played gigs around New York and New Jersey at CBGB's, Max's Kansas City, Asbury Park. We opened up for a bunch of British new wave and punk bands from Gang of Four to the Thompson Twins.
At the time, people had just started talking about world music. People in the new wave and punk movement started getting involved with world music, people like Malcolm McLaren, David Byrne, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel.
A French producer heard my band and felt there was an island flair to our sound, even though island music wasn't our thing. He asked us what our backgrounds were, and when he heard my mom was Haitian he told me I ought to go to Haiti. That was around 1983.
So I left the band, or was thrown out. I was probably thrown out. I'm not always that democratic. (laughs) I went to Haiti and I told people I wanted to make music with Vodou rhythms. I asked where the Vodou ceremonies were. I went to the ceremonies and started to record the rhythms.
I got offered a job to take over the Hotel Olofsson. I started bringing in folklore Vodou dance troupes to perform. Eventually I took one of those folklore troupes and turned it into a band.
I started writing songs and sometimes I would put in some Kreyol choruses. Then I just started falling in love with the Vodou songs. I started interpreting a lot of the Vodou songs and that's kind of how I got to where I am now.
NUVO: Was your music accepted right away by Haitians?
Richard A. Morse: We played for a couple years to chairs. But I kept putting out songs and people liked the songs. Eventually we started having hits. We got on that Philadelphia soundtrack and that really helped us gain acceptance in Haiti. I guess they thought "Wow, if they're getting on this movie soundtrack they must be good."
We've been doing a weekly gig in Haiti for at least 19 years. The band is 21 years old. I could play more, I could play less. I love playing music. I've kind of gotten involved in politics lately, which is diverting my attention a bit. I don't write as many songs as I used to, although I feel like a still have a couple albums in me.
NUVO: A big part of RAM's legacy has been your use of music as social commentary and a few of your songs have provoked serious controversy. You've had songs banned, you've been subjected to death threats, the military has cut off power during your performances. Can you tell me more about that?
Richard A. Morse: I grew up in Connecticut, so I never had that whole paranoid feeling, if i say something the government is gonna come after me. I grew up in punk rock and we said things, and there were bands with names like the Dead Kennedys. But no one ever really paid any attention to us. So it was kind of odd to have the Haitian army get upset with you because of a song. You know, we caused a stir.
I've been grabbed. I have had musicians arrested in the middle of a show. They flipped our Carnaval float and a dozen people died during that incident. I believe in standing up for what you believe in, and let the chips fall where they may.
In my early days I used to write songs that antagonized. There are things in Haitian society that polarize the society. If you start talking about light skin and dark skin, mixed color people, you'll polarize groups of people. But if you talk about rice and beans or you talk about dance music, it unifies Haitians.
I would say in the last five or six years I have tried to write songs that are more unifying than polarizing. I think there are times when you need to polarize. There are times when people are not addressing issues that need to be addressed. There are also times when you have to heal and you have bring people together.
NUVO: Do you think music can instigate social or political change?
Richard A. Morse: People aren't taking to the streets because I write a song. But the people who take to the streets might sing my song.
Someone can be in the streets fighting for a cause and he might decide to sing my song. Because he feels the words, melody and message are in harmony with what he's doing out in the streets. But I don't think people are going to be going about their business, hear a song and say "Did you hear that new RAM song? Oh shit, we gotta go get out in the streets."
NUVO: So why put your self on the line singing these political songs?
Richard A. Morse: I'm an artist. I'm looking for inspiration. That's how the inspiration comes out. I don't like to sing about girlfriends. I don't sing love songs. Although I've written couple, it's not my thing.
The Vodou songs are parables. They can come in and out of context, depending on the situation. I sang a couple songs for years and it wasn't until the earthquake that they began to make sense. I sang a song that said "the cemetery is full of people" and all the sudden after the earthquake, I sing "The cemetery is full of people" and everyone goes, "Oh shit" and they start singing along.
That's what the Vodou parables are like. You can sing it and it might mean nothing, but then an event happens and suddenly it means everything. They're timeless, but they're like waves. They go up and down, they come in and out. A particular song might not always be relevant, but that doesn't make it irrelevant. Because the time comes again and it comes back.
It's like these songs are an oral Bible. The Bible is written, where as these songs just got handed down from generation to generation. At different times, different songs seem to be telling the truth and there's nothing like the truth in a difficult situation. It helps people understand where they are. The truth doesn't always make people happy.
NUVO: Was it natural fusing the Vodou rhythms with new wave?
Richard A. Morse: Completely, but it took me awhile to figure it out. I believe our musical culture, and I mean American musical culture, I believe it comes from Vodou. Blues, Jazz, R&B all that stuff comes from black culture and black culture comes from Africa.
Haiti and Louisiana were one colony. I like to think of New Orleans and Haiti as twin sisters separated at birth. New Orleans was adopted by American parents and Haiti remained on her own. A lot of American culture comes from New Orleans, so if you trace this stuff back to its roots you're gonna end up in Haiti, you're gonna end up in Africa in a tribe.
These rhythms we play, how far back do they go? How far back do the dance steps go? We're not talking decades, we're talking millennia.
It doesn't matter if the government or army gets mad at me, because what I'm doing existed before I was born. I'm doing it now and when I'm not doing it, someone else will be. So I am irrelevant, I just happen to be the guy who's doing it now.
NUVO: What role does vodou music have in contemporary Haitian culture?
Richard A. Morse: You don't hear it on the radio, it's not pop music. But if you go to ceremonies all over the country, it's everywhere. If you talk to young people in the countryside, yeah they know the latest song on the radio - but they also sure know their own songs.
It's universal stuff. We did this song that really upset the mayor back in the mid-'90s. The song said, "I eat with them, I drink with them, but I have to watch my back with them." I thought to myself, what a funny little song to get people so upset. I'm singing the song, not thinking anything about it and suddenly people are getting mad and the governments coming down on you saying you're telling people they're traitors.
I'm not trying to piss anybody off, I try to make good dance music. Which is something I've believed in since my first band. If you want to have a good band, then make the people dance.
NUVO: Any plans to record again soon?
Richard A. Morse: I have a studio packed up in suitcases. I'm going to try to get my friend Andrew Weiss to come down. I know Andrew from my punk rock days. He works with a band called Ween, he was in the Rollins Band. He won a Grammy for producing Cafe Tacuba, a Latin Rock band. I'd like him to remove this recording equipment form my suitcases and put it at the hotel and we can make the next album at the hotel. Or the next two albums.
I stopped making albums because of bootlegging, I couldn't make any money. But now that the bootleggers aren't making any money, I don't mind doing it again.
Thanks to Amy King for her assistance in arranging this interview.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features songs from Haiti.
A Cultural Manifesto - Haiti Mix by A-Cultural-Manifesto
1. Bade - Rara
2. Adjabel - Swing
3. Simbi - Nou La
4. Emeline Michel - Bo Kote'w
5. Carlton Rara - Papa Legba Nan Peyi Vodou
6. Carlton Rara - Mande Padon
7. Belo - Pap Negosye
8. Admiral T - Rev An Mwen
9. Mr. OK - Yaya
10. Wyclef Jean - 24 E Tan Pou Viv
11. Haitian Troubadors - Haiti Cherie
12. Emeline Michel - Gade Papi
13. Bele Boum Bap - Mizik Se Travay Nou
14. Swahna Desvarieux - Devinet
15. Boukman Eksperyans - Imamou Lele
16. Emeline Michel - Banda
17. Boukan Ginen - Ede M Chant
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