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A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti

A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti

by Gage Averill, Averill

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The history of Haiti throughout the twentieth century has been marked by oppression at the hands of colonial and dictatorial overlords. But set against this "day for the hunter" has been a "day for the prey," a history of resistance, and sometimes of triumph. With keen cultural and historical awareness, Gage Averill shows that Haiti's vibrant and expressive music has


The history of Haiti throughout the twentieth century has been marked by oppression at the hands of colonial and dictatorial overlords. But set against this "day for the hunter" has been a "day for the prey," a history of resistance, and sometimes of triumph. With keen cultural and historical awareness, Gage Averill shows that Haiti's vibrant and expressive music has been one of the most highly charged instruments in this struggle--one in which power, politics, and resistance are inextricably fused.

Averill explores such diverse genres as Haitian jazz, troubadour traditions, Vodou-jazz, konpa, mini-djaz, new generation, and roots music. He examines the complex interaction of music with power in contexts such as honorific rituals, sponsored street celebrations, Carnival, and social movements that span the political spectrum.

With firsthand accounts by musicians, photos, song texts, and ethnographic descriptions, this book explores the profound manifestations of power and song in the day-to-day efforts of ordinary Haitians to rise above political repression.

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University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)
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A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey

Popular Music and Power In Haiti

By Gage Averill

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-03292-2


This is a book about music and power, or more exactly about music in the
discourse and relations of power. I contend that Haitian politics and more
generally the struggle for power have insinuated themselves into every arena of
musical expression. Popular music, as a discursive terrain, is a site at which
power is enacted, acknowledged, accommodated, signified, contested, and
resisted. Emerging in the context of power relations, popular music bears the
traces of those relations. A popular Haitian aphorism has it that Ayiti se te
(Haiti is a slippery country), and this is nowhere truer than in the
convoluted landscape of Haitian politics. What I attempt in these pages is to
communicate some of the subtle and complex interactions of music and power in
Haiti and to point in some possibly productive directions for understanding why
they are so often yoked together.

Encounters in Music and Power

My perspectives on Haitian popular music have developed through eight years of
interactions, conversations, observations, and readings, and my account of music
and power in Haitireflects those experiences. To clarify the contingent and
subjective nature of my knowledge about these issues, let me begin by recounting
a few brief anecdotes culled from my field notes and embellished with "head
notes" (memories).

On my first night in Haiti in 1988, unable to locate my contact and having lost
all of my luggage (send to Suriname by mistake), I checked into a hotel and
wandered into a nearby bar. There I met two American women who were working for
a U.S. AID (U.S. Agency for International Development) reforestation project in
the south of Haiti, and we started drinking beer and talking. They were
concerned that peasants in their area, even those working for the project,
seemed disillusioned with-and resistant to-the project. The peasants were
engaging in sabotage, "poaching" of trees for charcoal, work slowdowns,
spreading of rumors, and a variety of other tactics that the peasants called
mawonaj. I was surprised by the peasants' adaptation of this term, which I knew
only in relation to its original meaning: escape from slavery. Its use as a
rubric for a class of tactics of resistance and subterfuge suggested a
reinterpretation of the term over the course of a history of resistance to
agents of oppression (whether foreign or national) against whom outright warfare
was impossible. The AID workers also divulged that area rara bands were singing
disparaging songs about the project and this was undermining their credibility.
Rara is a processional music of peasants and the lower classes in Haiti, and
because it was the beginning of rara season (roughly Lent), the bands could be
heard at night just about anywhere in the country, including in the hills around
us that night in Petion-Ville. Outside, we heard a commotion, so we walked out
into the street to find a small crowd pointing toward the horizon. Far off in
the distance, north of Port-au-Prince, a very large building was burning, its
flames visible from Petion-Ville. It was Damien, the Agricultural Ministry and
College, and tonight it was the target of mawonaj. We watched the fire rage on
for some time while rara bands, their bamboo trumpets sounding like a chorus of
owls in the hillsides, filled the night with sound. As we shall see, the arts of
musical mawonaj figure prominently in this book.

It was a surprisingly long drive from Cap-Haitien, the northern provincial
capital, to the town of Bas-Limbe. Picking up four hitchhikers, who rode on our
rental car's bumper, we bounced in near-total darkness down the dirt road
leading from National Route 1 into Bas-Limbe, site of a fet chanpet (countryside
festival) and host that night to one of Cap Haitien's two venerable orchestras,
Orchestre Septentrionale. This was in the middle of August, the month of vakans
(vacation time), when towns all over Haiti hold fet chanpets and fet patwonals
(patron's day festivals). Septentrionale had just recorded a song at the time
about this kind of event called "Plezi chanpet" (Pleasures of the country
festival). It beautifully illustrates the pleasures to be found in a chanpet,
the importance of the festival, and the money that it brings from the city to
the countryside.

Sa k lot bo ap rantre, sa k isit ap prepare
Tour moun pral fete
Nan chanpet yo mariye, nan chanpete yo divose
Nan chanpet yo rekonsiliye ...
Mesye mesye mete grinbank sou nou
Medanm yo mete gangans sou nou
Si se djaz ou ye mete mizik sou nou
Se nan chanpet pou n we neg ki bon matcho
Se nan chanpet pou n we fanm ki bay filin
Se nan chanpet pou n we djaz ki bay konpa

Expatriates are returning, locals are preparing
Everyone's going to the fete
At the champetre they'll marry and divorce
At the champetre they'll reconcile ...
Mister, Mister, give us a buck [greenback]
Madams, lay some elegance on us
If you're with the band, lay some music on us
At the fete we'll see some macho guys
At the fete we'll see women who can turn you on
At the fete, we'll see bands playing konpa

The yard for dancing at Bas-Limbe was surrounded with a chest-high block wall.
There were cars parked randomly; many taptaps (pick-up trucks converted into
brightly painted, covered buses); and female vendors selling sweets, kleren
(cane liquor), and coffee. The ticket window was a hole in the block wall
through which a number of people were trying to stick their hands. Joining the
battle of the hands, I picked up tickets for our group of four, and we snaked
single file through the crowd-control entrance. Inside, the atmosphere was much
more "relaks." Tables dotted the grass in the dark, piled with bottles of
Barbancourt rum and with bowls of lanbi (conch). The generator roared off to one
side, providing the electricity to run the few lights and the band's PA system.

The twelve members of Septentrionale who were present finished tuning their
instruments and launched into some older tunes in their patented rhythm, the rit
boul dife
(fireball rhythm) similar to konpa but with some Cuban influences and
idiosyncratic touches. We joined in the slow dancing close to the stage. After a
potpourri of romantic boleros, the band sang a recent song about the history of
Haiti's hardships since the slave rebellion in 1791, with the following chorus:

Se yon mesaj ki pou pase de bouch an bouch
Pou tout moun konsantre nan priye
Pou n wete malediksyon ki sou te dayiti

This is a message to pass from
mouth to mouth
For everyone to concentrate on as a prayer
To remove this curse from the land of Haiti

In writing this song and others in a more socially engaged vein (called mizik
, or politically engaged music), Septentrionale joined many other bands
and performers who were weighing in on the social transformations shaping the
country. Only two years after the exile of the Duvalier family and still very
much in a tumultuous period in Haiti's political history, most musicians were
taking their roles as cultural leaders seriously.

Somewhere in the latter part of the song, a group of rowdy tonton makout-s
(former members of the Duvalierist militia), who were at a table in the back of
the enclosure, pulled out some guns and started firing into the air. This had
been the standard behavior for makout-s during the Duvalier years, when it was
part of their mode of enjoyment, but it shocked many at the dance during a
period where the makout-s were so on the defensive. With the crowd startled, the
lead singer stopped the band and shouted into the mic, "No, no. Puts your guns
back. There will be no firing guns here. This is for pleasure. Relax a bit. No
guns, okay?" And relax they did; the music started up, the guns went back in the
holsters, and people went back to slow dancing. This informal countryside
festival was intended to be as far from a political event as one gets in Haiti,
yet here I was struck by how close to the surface the political struggle was,
how ready to spill over into any public event. In the era of dechoukaj
(uprooting, i.e., basic change), musical pleasures were generally not very far
from political pressures.

Perhaps more obviously political was an incident I recounted previously in an
article on Haitian carnival. At an outdoor Haitian music festival that I helped
to organize in Miami at carnival time in 1989, the final band, Miami Top Vice,
launched into a spirited carnival medley. I looked out into the crowd from the
stage to see a number of men spread their arms to lese frape (let hit), and
exuberant carnival behavior, and I realized too late that I had neglected to
inform the police that this might occur. As officers dove into the crowd to
arrest the men for "drunk and disorderly" behavior, the announcer grabbed the
microphone, silenced the music, and encouraged the crowd to surround the police
to demand the release of the Haitians. A police call for help (scarcely two
months after the infamous Overtown riots in Miami) brought what seemed like
every squad car and fire engine in downtown Miami to the scene within minutes.
As we negotiated with the police for a tense half-hour, members of the crown
began to make use of the three-toned whistles passed out as free souvenirs by
the sponsor, the Nutrament Corporation (manufacturer of a sports drink). Crowd
members combined the three tones into hocketed patterns (in which the melody
tones are distributed among many instruments) resembling those of rara and
carnival bands. Empty Nutrament cans filled in for bells, and antipolice
carnival songs (part of a traditional form of censure called chan pwen-s, or
sung points) were composed on the spot. As I watched these makeshift carnival
ensembles fire up the crowds, I was in awe of the power of carnival music-even
here in the Haitian diaspora-to animate a confrontation of this sort. In the
sociopolitical space of the diaspora, the political issues were different, but
the crowd was manifesting its access to the same tactics and tools of
musicopolitical signification used in Haiti, the same weapons of musical

Thinking back on these three experiences and on many others like them, I am
aware that throughout my research on Haitian music I was dogged by the question
of music's role in enacting and negotiating authority, domination, co-optation,
subordination, hegemony, and resistance. This book is an effort to grapple with
these questions.


Excerpted from A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey
by Gage Averill
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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