Manno Charlamagne’s voice moved a nation; Homegrown talent Fontaine makes an impression
By Steve Desrosiers, Contributing Editor
Jun. 24, 2009
Les Inedits (unedited)
Songs of Manno Charlemagne
His was the voice and conscience of the generation of Haitian men and women who ousted the Duvalier regime in the early 1980s. Manno Charlemagne also helped to usher in Haiti’s first attempt at Democratic government ten years later.
Charlemagne was born in Carrefour, Port-au-Prince in the late 1940s and as a young man was heavily impressed by the ways and folklore of the Haitian peasantry. As an artist and activist, Manno’s sensitivity to the plight of the oppressed classes of Haiti placed him at odds with the values of Haiti’s status quo. By the time the artist matured as a social activist and performer, his brand of protest music made him a target of the Duvalier regime. He was often jailed, received death threats and was exiled in the early 1980s for his activism.
After the ouster of Duvalier in 1986, Manno returned to Haiti and was a significant voice in Jean Bertrand Aristide’s “Lavalas” (Flood) political movement. The “Lavalas” movement eventually led 67% of the Haiti’s populace to place Aristide as the Island’s first democratically elected president. Unfortunately, the military coup that landed Aristide in America in 1991 also forced a second exile for Charlemagne who then gained renown by performing his powerful protest songs among Haiti’s exile community. Charlemagne’s powerful message graced the states for a period of four years, until Aristide’s return to Haiti in 1994. He returned to Haiti with Aristide to serve as Mayor of Port-au-Prince for a short time.
The album, “Les Inedits” is an important collection of songs rarely performed outside of private settings in Haiti during the late 1970s. Charlemagne’s sonorous voice accompanied by a sparse melodic guitar is all the adornment used to recount the sorrowful plight of Haiti’s populace. The power of this approach is apparent in moody numbers like, “Konsyans nou nan trou” (Our consciences are buried). The slightly less sparse “Semitye” blends the artist’s acoustic guitar with Damas Jean Francois’s soulful fingerings on electric guitar. Jocelyn Egourdet’s effective punctuations on Tenor sax lend a dark dramatic air to this troubled piece which finds the artist asking an unidentified adversary whether “God had killed all the dead piled up” in an unnamed cemetery. Other thought provoking numbers include “Lajan sa”, “Malsite”, “Yo gen pouvwa” and many, many more.
Charlemagne’s brave work in Haiti’s expansive Twoubadou tradition as a conscientious songwriter paved the way for some of today’s more popular folk performers. His brave compositions paved the way for the work of artists like Beethovas Obas in the 1990s, and the solo work of younger artists like Michael Benjamin and Belo in recent times.
This piece was a late discovery by the Reporter (it was originally released in 2006) but nonetheless deserves a spot in any reputable collection. Discover Manno Charlemagne today!
Pierre Gardy Fontaine
Every once in a while, the Reporter receives an unexpected surprise from its adoring supporters! Usually, it’s in the form of music from a local artist whose skills would otherwise have gone unnoticed had they not taken a chance on our humble publication. Such is the case with singer Pierre Gardy Fontaine and his album, “Oh Glory”.
Gardy sought out the Reporter a few months ago and we were immediately enthusiastic about the quality and deep significance of his talent. The man is Haitian but his gift is in rendering powerful English versions of classic African-American spirituals and traditional American hymns. The work is important for a few reasons but I’ll elaborate on one. Poet Amari Baraka, in his noteworthy book, “Blues People” reflected that the slave in America became American once he started to sing his “work” songs in English and no longer in the African tongue of his ancestors. It was a painful shift that was yet the mark that America was now home and Africa no longer! One feels this quality in Pierre’s recording.
There is a slight shift in our collective Haitian-American identity that is revealed in “Oh Glory”. Its exactitude and meticulous nature is something totally American. It is bold and cuts no corners. Further, it is a confident and raw display of a powerful talent. Pierre’s performances are excellent overall and while it is hard to choose a favorite among the songs featured, his robust technique and training is best displayed in songs like “Precious Lord” and “Crucifixion”, sung in both English and Haitian Kreyol. “Oh Glory”, the album’s title track and “It is well” also stand out as fantastic renditions of American classics. “Oh Glory” is manned mostly by Pierre’s dynamic vocals and the tasteful piano playing of one, Noriko Yasuda. The album’s best pieces are rendered in this sparse format and its weaker ones in the more ambitious full band settings.
Fontaine was exposed as a youth to the charms of Haitian folk songs as well as American spirituals and European classical music. His intonations reveal a fusion of all these influences – there is all at once an operatic charm, a classical discipline and something reminiscent of the late great American performer/ activist Paul Robeson shining through many of the featured songs. Of course these qualities are not merely a product of exposure; Pierre studied with professional opera singer, grew up emulating his older brothers who were themselves musicians and studied at the Longy School of Music.
“Oh Glory” sets quite an example for Boston’s small but industrious Haitian community of Gospel performers. Luckily for them, Pierre’s stated ambition is to pass on his knowledge to “help others grow and develop their gift of song and music.” Discover this talented singer today! Pierre’s release is available on the website “CDbaby” and through his MySpace and Facebook accounts. Get yours today!
The Reporter Thanks:
Patrick St. Germain of International Perfumes and Discount for availing Manno Charlemagne’s release for review. The releases are available at 860 Morton Street Dorchester, MA (617) 825-6151.