Boston Globe, June 27, 2013
NEW YORK — The souls still hover, not yet fully mourned, no great cathartic act of government to honor them in public, speed their journey home. The list of names of the lost will never be complete. Their final number — 230,000 by some estimates, 300,000 by others — will never be known.
Like virtually every Haitian, the singer Emeline Michel lost loved ones in the earthquake of January 12, 2010. One was her colleague, the dancer Benji Jolicoeur, who brought to her shows intense interludes of expressive dance forms like the traditional, ritualistic yanvalou. He died in motion, in the middle of a workshop with students. Michel lost others too, relatives, friends, artists she admired.
“Every time I go back to Haiti, I realize how much the spirits are still hanging,” says Michel, whose 25-year, 10-album career as the so-called Queen of Creole Soul makes her a much-admired Haitian artist in her own right, with a pioneering role as a female bandleader and entrepreneur.
“There was never an official homage to all these spirits. Yet it can’t be avoided — the earthquake is a part of the story that happened. It’s a required passage, going through mourning so there can be rebirth.”
It has two solemn, sad songs (“Dawn,” with a Haitian Creole text by novelist Edwidge Danticat, and “Ton Yanvalou,” written by author Yanick Lahens and dedicated to Jolicoeur) that directly address the earthquake. Others, like “Timoun” (“Children”), pick up the tempo and speak of rebuilding the country and life itself. “La vi pa rekile, fò n vanse,” goes the chorus: “Life doesn’t go backward, we must move forward.”
But “Quintessence” is not just a social document. Michel began it before the earthquake struck. The original plan was to celebrate soul and simplicity. Michel, who is in her mid-40s, was coming out of a divorce, had moved to New York, was giving away clothes and jewelry, had cropped her hair into a short natural style. She was paring away excess, from both her life and her music.
“I wanted everything heavy to be let down, and go to the core and essence of everything,” Michel says over lunch at a bistro on the Upper West Side. “To be, at the end of the day, the naked self — there is enlightenment in being in that state. And that translated into the writing. I wanted to do an album that was just acoustic. And I told my musicians, ‘If you hear me doing a song that reminds you of anything I wrote before, shoot me.’ ’’
The album’s first two songs, the hymn-like “Infini,” in French, and the joyous “Mèsi Lavi,” in Creole, put forward this refreshed state of mind. The personal material forms an elegant balance with the earthquake and mourning themes, and other topics: domestic violence in “Djannie,” unrequited love on “M Pa Ka Dòmi,” or the communion with nature on “Terre Mouillée,” with its text in a different Creole, that of Martinique, by the playwright Ina Césaire.
A self-confessed bookworm (the conversation digresses frequently into book talk and reading recommendations), Michel says the collaborations on “Quintessence” were especially rewarding. “There are so many writers I admire, I wanted to sit down with them, merge with them,” she says.
These contributors include important figures of Haitian and French Caribbean literature; the one most familiar to US audiences is Danticat, the Miami-based novelist. She not only wrote lyrics to “Dawn” but also shares the microphone with Michel on the song, the two women taking turns to recite, in spoken-poetry style, an incantation to the dead, against conga rhythms and a backing chorus. It’s a powerful piece of music.
“Writing lyrics, as opposed to a long story, forces you to get to the heart of the emotion a lot quicker,” Danticat says in an e-mail. “It was very cathartic and very healing, not only to write the words but to read them along with Emeline’s music. The most moving thing for me was saying the names of people who died in the earthquake. There were so many we could have included. We could have been there for days.”
In the time since the earthquake, much of the news from Haiti has been disappointing. Slow reconstruction, undelivered or vanished aid money, and political stagnation have gotten the better of Michel’s hopes for a large-scale, government-led revival of the economy.
But that does not make her a pessimist. “Let me take the brighter side,” she says. “I’m confident that conscious individuals will take steps that will put Haiti on a different page, and accomplish much more. There are a lot of great individuals, artists, designers, coming to Haiti and investing themselves with a very clean heart.”