Saturday, 28 September 2013


For singer-songwriter Emeline Michel, it’s hard to separate art from politics, especially when one comes from a certain country. And if that place is Haiti, it’s almost impossible.

Emeline Michel during a performance in Paris.
Michel was born in Gonaïves, in the northern part of the Caribbean island, and she’s no stranger to scenes of rioting, flooding, mudslides and other catastrophes that have affected her homeland. But she is also a witness to the indomitable spirit and generosity of Haitians, and her music reflects this.

“In my country, when you have a voice and a mic, there is just so much that you can’t allow yourself to let pass by without saying something,” she told SWAN during an interview before two concerts in Paris, France, this week.

“You have to speak out for people who don’t have the same privilege. The inspiration and the issues are right under my eyes, and as much as I sing about love and other subjects, it’s impossible for me to be quiet about the social and political content,” she added.  

On tour to promote her 10th album, Quintessence, Michel said that the scars of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti caused her to look inward, to go back to basics. The music and her current performances pull listeners into a space where pain is mixed with healing, sadness with joy. “Sucré  et salé” – sweet and salty – she calls her renditions, as she moves from joyous to wrenching songs, and back.

Michel, in a relaxed moment.
Michel’s voice evokes something elemental, and brings to mind the talent of vocalists such as Miriam Makeba and Ella Fitzgerald. Her origins as a gospel and jazz singer infuse and bolster the African, Caribbean and Latin American rhythms in her music. But it’s the lyrics that cause reflection.

“I think your background absolutely impacts who you are as a singer-songwriter, and as a person,” she said in response to a question about her influences. “When you see someone standing up and singing after a hurricane, and you see the country re-forming, it changes you as a person. That's why so much of my music is about hope.”

Michel first gained attention when she won a talent contest at the age of 18, after having sung in her local church. The win motivated her to move to the United States to study jazz for a year at the Detroit Jazz Center, and when she returned to Haiti, she created a band and launched her career as a singer. Soon she was racking up hits in the French-speaking Caribbean, with both her voice and her good looks fueling awareness of her presence.

In 1991, she drew international notice with the release of the album Tout mon temps (All my time) and the success of the infectious song “A.K.I. K.O”. From that point, Michel could have gone on to be just another pop star, producing danceable but forgettable music. Instead, she chose to develop her skills as a songwriter and producer, and to combine her art with social activism. To “stay true” to her artistic vision, she created her own production company, “Cheval de Feu”, in 1999.

Four years later, she launched Rasin Kreyòl  (Creole Roots),  a collection of songs with poignant lyrics and powerful melodies that paid tribute to traditional Haitian rhythms and expressed a certain yearning for her homeland.

Michel, with her band, in Paris.
She was again living in the United States at the time, and the album caused influential people in the music business to take notice.  Michel was invited as a guest on National Public Radio and also performed at prestigious Carnegie Hall. In Canada, the French-language press hailed Rasin Kreyòl as one of the best world music records of 2004.

Alongside her music career, Michel became increasingly involved in community service in the United States, giving concerts for patients at various hospitals and also for prison inmates, including women prisoners.

Haiti meanwhile was eager to welcome her back, and in 2007 Michel was the guest of honor at Musique en Folie (Music Madness) in Port-au-Prince. She took the opportunity to launch her ninth album, Reine de Coeur (Queen of Hearts), there. Drawing anew on her African and Caribbean links, Michel worked with a team of 35 musicians, and used the album to celebrate her 20 years in the music business.

The earthquake of 12 January 2010 galvanized her and other U.S.-based Haitian artists to assist with the relief efforts, and anyone who watched the Hope for Haiti telethon organized by U.S. actor George Clooney will remember Michel’s raw rendition of the Jimmy Cliff classic “Many Rivers to Cross”. The telethon was broadcast around the world and raised $66 million.

Michel, before a rehearsal in France. © SWAN
The aftermath of the earthquake caused a change in Michel’s approach to music, she told SWAN. She said that she wanted to go to a “quiet place” with only the essentials, "only the bare minimum". Quintessence is thus an acoustic-driven album, pared down, poetic and jazzy.

Michel worked with the renowned Haitian author Edwidge Danticat on the stand-out track "Dawn", and what listeners hear is Danticat’s lyrical language delivered in Michel’s moving voice.

“I feel like I’ve been wanting to do this album forever”, Michel told SWAN. “I love reading and always wanted to work with some of the writers who’ve kept me awake with their books over the years.”

Not all the songs seem suited to a live performance, and several of Michel's friends thought the project was “too different”. But the singer says she felt it was important for her to do something she truly enjoyed.

“When you talk with your heart, people respond to it,” she said. “I’ve learned over the years not to do things because of trends.” – A.M. 

Thursday, 19 September 2013


Two weeks after the Rome-based “multi-cultural” writer Taiye Selasi declared provocatively in Berlin that “African literature doesn’t exist”, her more famous counterpart Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be in Paris to talk about literary stereotypes and identity.

Chimamanda Adichie © SWAN
Adichie of Nigeria is one of 28 high-profile writers taking part in the inaugural “Ecrivains du Monde” literary festival Sept. 20 - 22 in the French capital, where the issues of diversity and globalization are set to generate some interesting debate.

Like the fast-rising Selasi (Ghana Must Go), Adichie and many other writers reject being pigeon-holed according to their nationality or colour, and the festival is meant to be a “celebration of world literature”, or perhaps world-class literature, as it includes award-winning authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Walter Mosley and Salman Rushdie.

“African Literature is an empty designation, as is Asian Literature, European Literature, Latin American Literature, South American Literature, North American Literature, and so forth,” Selasi said in a recent speech.  “My very basic assertion is that the practice of categorizing literature by the continent from which its creators come is past its prime at best.”

The “Ecrivains du Monde” festival, organized by New York’s Columbia University and Paris’ Bibliotheque national de France (national library), may thus be ahead of the curve by focusing on the world of literature produced by writers from around the world.

Take Petros Markaris, for instance. Born in Turkey to a Greek mother and Armenian father, he became a Greek citizen in 1974. Before that, he had no citizenship. Markaris, an acclaimed screenwriter and novelist with fans all over the globe, will discuss language and identity on the opening day of the festival.

Festival co-director Caro Llewellyn © SWAN
That same evening, novelist Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) will be participating in an “international reading under the stars”, along with Ma Jian of China (The Noodle Maker), John Banville of Ireland (The Sea) and Rushdie from “the world of living under police protection”, according to festival co-director Caro Llewellyn.

“Rushdie is a guest like everybody else and he’ll be reading and holding discussions just like everybody else,” Llewellyn told SWAN, when asked about the presence of the controversial author.

“The writers were selected based on many criteria … who they may pair well with, what’s their story and how does that reflect certain issues that we want to raise at the festival. But they are all great writers doing great work,” she added.

Llewellyn, an Australian who has organized festivals from Sydney to New York, says that there is a need for people everywhere to read the “world’s books” to achieve greater international understanding. This is a belief also held by Paul LeClerc, the new director of Columbia Global Centers / Europe who came up with the idea for the festival. The Center in Paris often organizes stimulating symposiums on global and cultural issues.

During the Ecrivains du Monde event, one much-anticipated debate will focus on whether globalization has hurt or helped writers from smaller countries. Have barriers really broken down between borders and language, with new markets opening up all the time? Most writers would probably laugh at this question, but the subject will be seriously tackled by Kiran Desai and Amin Maalouf, among others.

Walter Mosley (image from Ecrivains)
Meanwhile author Elif Shafak, who writes in both Turkish and English, will talk about “reimagining east and west” – a look at how “imaginary” geographical concepts can be “de-imagined” and “re-imagined”, as she puts it.

Speaking of mind games, book-lovers will also get to listen to celebrated crime writer Walter Mosley discuss whether there is anything more real than imagination. And Mosley will additionally cast a light on the mean streets of his popular protagonist Easy Rawlins, who solves crimes in a segregated American city of the 1950s and Sixties.

Readers needing some physical exercise after such intellectual discourse can opt for a walking tour of Paris on the final day of the festival with a Columbia University professor of architecture, who will relate the story of those who helped shape the city’s history. These movers and "shapers" include ancient Roman settlers, Resistance fighters and, of course, famous Parisian authors.

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