Coupe Cloue: Haiti’s musical Santa delivered in ‘12

We usually reserve Christmas reviews for new releases but as this season promises to be lean on that end we’ll take a look back to celebrate an artist who was Haiti’s musical Santa. This year, we celebrate the memorable releases of artist Coupe Cloue. In many ways Gesner Henry aka “Coupe Cloue” was Haiti’s version of American Funk pioneer James Brown - an artist whose talents were such that he not only mastered the commercial trends of his day but eventually transcended them to concoct his own inimitable sonic cocktail. It was a style fans christened “Konpa Manba” (Peanut butter or sticky Konpa) and nothing like it existed in Haitian music before. And much like American Funk, it was a style of music so rooted to Haiti’s true identity that, once consumed, it could do nothing less than stick to the ribs of the tried and true native.

Coupe Cloue’s musical inventions incorporated the most enticing rhythms of the Vodou and Troubadour traditions, a fusion of Haitian and African guitar technique, a melodic and harmonic formula that was steeped in the conventions of commerce and Afro-Haitian folklore. He was a gifted musician who was a master of Haitian Kreyol language. The charms of Coupe’s albums lay in the seductive originality of his melodies and his talent for arranging powerful male harmonies that did for his music what the horn section did for James Brown’s. Cloue’s engaging songwriting ability, his fantastic comedic sense, his keen ability to construct compositions that incorporated much of Haiti’s native musical styles put him in a category of his own in the history of Haitian music.

Coupe was born in the town of Leogane but came to live in the working class “Bel Air” neighborhood of Port-au-Prince as a teen. In Port-au-Prince he made a name for himself as a talented soccer player. However, music was his calling and as a young man he set himself to study the guitar, trumpet and clarinet. He eventually formed his own troubadour group and worked his craft canvassing various neighborhoods where his troupe serenaded the city’s eligible bachelorettes. He gained some notoriety and began to play with his band “ Ensemble Select” in the city’s various nightclubs. Greater exposure came to the group once local radio stations like Radio Haiti, Radio Cacique, and Radio Port-au-Prince began to feature the group’s popular songs.

Coupe was notorious for shamelessly airing out Haitian society’s taboo subjects with an open frankness that pleased and displeased Haitian audiences. At one point the Duvalier regime censured some of his racy early works where blatant sexual innuendo couched in easily decipherable word play took audiences into the seedier realities of Haitian family life, love and sexuality.

The elements that made Coupe’s music legendary were many and varied. It was a style nourished by the spirit of Haiti’s Troubadours. The Troubadour ensembles were small groups of wandering musicians accompanied by guitars, accordions, banjos, cha-chas, marimbulas and bongos who eked out a living playing wherever they could find an audience and especially for revelers on beaches. Their tunes were crowd pleasers and incorporated music that was native to Haiti and anything from foreign shores that the troubadours had the know-how to incorporate. This aspect of the troubadour’s outgoing and crowd pleasing musical mindset guides the core of the average Coupe Cloue album.

Among his many great albums is the classic “Gacon Colon”. The album’s lead track starts off with an elaborate lead exchange between the bass and two guitars; the lead guitar establishes a melodic theme while the rhythm guitar plays a supportive harmonic role and is given the freedom to extend into some support lead playing itself. By the end of that intro riff, the guitarists who seemed disjoined at the beginning catch up to each other in time to harmonize that section’s last key notes. Coupe then introduces the song’s lyrics – a classic of the Haitian way with conversation, where keen observations are aired to support an insightful proverb. Coupe comes into the song harmonizing with his gifted co-lead singer Assad Francoeur to deliver the following lyrics: “yesterday we were discussing the ways of women of ill repute, today men, it’s your turn, the sea is full of mean creatures; the shark shouldn’t be the only one to bear a bad name…” Rhythmically, the song starts off with a Konpa shuffle (sans Cymbal) and once the lead chorus is delivered shifts into one of Coupe’s Manba shuffles. From this point on the tune shuffles back and forth between rhythms – one set to support some fantastic lead guitar inventions from Coupe’s top collaborator Bellerive Dorcelien and other to support Coupe’s humorous dissertation on the subject.

“Gacon Colon” also features the song “Plein Caille”, where one really hears what Coupe brings - in terms of modernization, organization and structure – to enhance the charms of the untamed Troubadour tradition. The song is built on three chords, the instrumental lineup is simple: bongos, claves, guitars and vocals. The male harmonies are firm, confident and repetitive; the guitar riffs are powerfully captivating but also repetitive and play a supportive role to Coupe’s acrobatic improvisations on vocals. The song ends with some echoed word play between Coupe and another support lead vocal. A fantastic display of the chordal simplicity and rhythmic sophistication of Haitian music.

The album’s second tune “Critique” features the sensitive vocals of Assad Francoeur. Here we see Coupe’s ability with a melody along a more sophisticated chord progression. The great charm of this song lays in Assad’s singularly latent technique as a vocalist, the fine qualities of his overall tone and dramatic commitment to the lyrics makes this song’s intro unforgettable. The musicians then rush headlong into a hot “Manba” rhythm where bongos, claves and guitars mesh to support an all male chorus bellowing the following message: “some folks would rather die, lose their homes to fire but save their tongues”… We spoke about the outward looking troubadour incorporating the available world influences to his songs and in this song Coupe Cloue effectively uses a Yodeling technique to improvise on vocals - the only feat of its kind in Haitian music.

Coupe’s best loved work was the unchallenged classic, “The Preacher” an all around hit release with songs which have not only withstood the test of time but established the extent of his genius for all time. This album features the classic “Myan Myan” where – again - a sparse but well manned instrumental line up surround another fantastic Assad Francoeur vocal feature. Agressive lead guitar work and Assad’s voice take up the bulk of the listener’s time. Coupe makes his presence felt in the final few minutes of the song where, using only a few words, a melodic improvisation that makes comedic use of his deep baritone – he absolutely steals the show! All that build up was meant to lead directly to his feature and so it has been that over time and generations, Haitians have listened to that particular song just to get to Coupe’s tiny little section.

“The Preacher” also hosted to the monumental but oft overlooked composition, “Mango”. “Mango” is a lively and intoxicating gem celebrating the joys of the cultivator looking forward to eating a few mangoes at a certain locale after a long day’s work. Well, maybe there’s something hidden in that whole “mange mango” business? Anyhow, Coupe makes great commercial use of the aggressive Petro Vodou drumming style, effectively lacing it with a volley of great guitar riffs and call and response Afro-Haitian harmonies. The song is short and lives its short life on the percussive use of two chords but so much rhythmic magic, Haitian history and plain fun is packed into these few minutes that it stands as a marvel of accomplishment for Haitian music.

It’s hard to stop when it comes to Coupe! Men know this well! But in closing it is interesting to note that one of the monumental things about this great artist is how much of the stage he shared with talents that were equally if not more astounding than he. A Coupe Cloue album might be his conceptually but unlike James Brown, Coupe allowed his supporting cast to shine and shine and shine as much as possible. This meant guitars, vocalists, backing vocalists; bongos and more were prominently featured on his releases. The challenge for him seemed to be figuring out how he was going to outshine them all no matter how much of the limelight he shared with anyone. Having listened to his albums all my life, I am astounded that it is only recently that I’ve learned the great names: Assad Francoeur, Rene Petion, Serge Bernard, Moise Jean, Daniel Dalce, Ernst Louis, Edner Saintine and more.

So, in the spirit of the season ladies, give him (or maybe them) the gift of Coupe! Many gifts of Coupe actually! Tis, after all the season of giving, of immaculate conceptions. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good “blague”.

Discover Coupe Cloue today! I recommend all the early (non-synthesizer) releases.

Reporter Thanks: Patrick St. Germain for availing the CDs for our review. Purchase them at Parfumery International located at 860 Morton Street, Dorchester 617-825-6151.