When Michel Martelly hired the slick Spanish marketing firm Sola to manage his presidential campaign in Haiti last year, the candidate was running third out of three major candidates in the race, behind Mirlande Manigat -- the wife of an ex-president -- and Jude Celestin, the government favorite. The Spanish team, which previously worked on campaigns for Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2006 and U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008, advised him to embrace his position as a political outsider. They also helped him make use of his most powerful and singular asset: his voice.
The voice of Martelly, better known in the country that this week elected him president as "Sweet Micky," has been the soundtrack to the lives of Haiti's youthful population, most of whom are under 24 years old. Like Proust's character dipping his petit Madeleine into his tea and being at once flooded by a wave of involuntary memories, Sweet Micky's voice has the capacity to transport Haitians back to a time when for an evening, the body felt good and life was all right. Before he was president-elect of Haiti, Martelly was know as the "president of konpa," the genre of Haitian dance music known for its upbeat tempo, carefree and pleasure-oriented lyrics, and cheek-to-cheek dance. In the darkened dance halls or outdoor squares where Sweet Micky's records have played for more than 20 years, people dance in the arms of their chouboulouts (darlings) and let the music wash their cares away, a fleeting pleasure in a country that has yet to recover from the catastrophic earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince last year.
But Sola's consultants worried that Martelly needed to transcend his image as the "bad boy" of konpa; after all, this was a man known largely for lyrics such as "I don't care, I don't give a shit." It was a version of the problem that entertainers and artists moving into politics elsewhere in the world have faced as well, as Al Franken and Arnold Schwarzenegger could attest. But Martelly had a major advantage: He was running for office in Haiti, a country where political parties are weak and where musical celebrity goes a long way.
The Haitian audioscape is as vibrant and blaring as the country's brightly painted "tap-tap" buses. Music is entertainment, but it is also a form of work, a form of prayer, and a form of politics. In a country where the median age is 21 and most people are not literate, listening is a refined skill and sonic information is knowledge. In the countryside, women sing to the rhythm of the mortar and pestle as they pound corn meal in their homes, and men hoeing fields or building houses coordinate movements to music in work parties called konbit. In Port-au-Prince's earthquake tent encampments, children unable to afford school sing to clapping games, and church groups sing prayers into the night. Students in schools chant their multiplication tables in unison, and walking street vendors play the "teedle-tee-tee-tee" of custom-made melodies on glass soda bottles to hawk cold 7-Up. Everybody is selling something, often with a distinctive sound to catch the ear and the attention.
In politics, the lowest-tech expression of Haiti's musicality is the rara, the term for a style of parade music and the bands that perform it. Rara is distinctive for its portable drums and its long bamboo horns, cut to produce different pitches. (The horns are now often made of PVC piping, which produces a wonderful vibrating bass tone.) The horn notes are designed to carry far off into the countryside and are thought to have originated as the corps de musique of the Maroon armies that fought and defeated the white colonists in the Haitian Revolution. Often affiliated with Vodou congregations and believed to be under the patronage of a spirit in the unseen realm, rara bands are embedded in deep and wide political networks throughout the country; Martelly spent many hours of his campaign leading raras through the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince and numerous provincial towns.
Raras also have long served as a mouthpiece for popular opinion, a means by which the impoverished majority -- whom the elites try their best not to see -- can make themselves heard. They can boast about an aspiring candidate, "roast" a local community member by singing about a scandal, or launch criticism of the government. Haitians call this "voye pwen" -- "sending a point." Pwen can be silly, and even vulgar, in the bawdy tradition of Carnival. They can also be sharply political. When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by a military coup in 1991 after seven months in office, for example, one rara band sang about a woman who aborted a baby at seven months. If pressed, the musicians could always say they were just talking about Marie-Josephine down the block. But everybody knew that Marie-Jo was the military coup, and the baby was democracy.
Several of the most popular pwen songs railing against the 1991 ousting of Aristide were penned by one of Martelly's closest current advisors: Richard A. Morse, the bandleader of RAM, a rasin ("roots") band (named after its leader's initials) that mixes Afro-Creole Vodou music with rock. RAM's 1992 song "Fey" ("Leaf") was shot through with cryptic criticisms of the coup, including a verse from a traditional Vodou song lamenting, "My only son, they made him leave the country." Because the lyric was in the first person, it belonged to everybody who sang along with it. The military leaders at the time banned the song from the radio, which of course only made its popularity soar among the raras in the streets.