Leftwing Haitian singer Emerantes De Pradines

Archives today preserve treasure from cultures that span this globe. One of the musicians preserved by The Smithsonian’s archival collection is a little known Haitian singer: Emerantes De Pradines. Her music is only offered for sale by The Smithsonian as MP3. She is, however, one of Haiti’s great singers.

Understanding De Pradines’s importance begins with Haiti’s social history. Alienating one’s self from an African past afflicts many black persons of the Western Hemisphere. The alienation from whatever is African in Haiti by members of the middle and upper classes has been the same since the colonies, when the freed black person, of light skin, mulatto, or of dark skin (two separate legal categories in creole colonial society). In St. Domingue, Haiti’s name under French rule, intra-population prejudice even went deeper than race or color; those who were not white and were born on the colony were considered creoles and those who were born in Africa ‘bossales’. It was a question of “civilization”. “Civilization” to the sons of Creoles who have led the country after Haiti’s independence is rooted in European thought.

In 1934, a large amount of sons and daughters of wealthy Haitians, aided by a growing middle class decided to produce, for the first name since Jean Jacques Dessalines assassination in 1806, Haitian civilization. Their egos had been whipped during the American occupation from 1915 – 1934, to quote the Anthropologist Jean Coulanges. The term Renaissance being often too strong to define an era, a Golden Age is generally used to a period of time of intensive activity of very high quality levels of production. From the end of the American occupation in 1934 until the reign of Dictator Francois Duvalier’s militia the VSN, also known as Tonton Macoutes, Haiti knew a Golden Age in the arts, in the humanities, and in social activism. Several musicians typified this Golden Age. Emerantes de Pradines is one of these artists and she made great strides in Haitian music. Though she remains a marginal figure in Haitian culture, her importance is undisputed. Given the time in Haitian social history when she chose to sang vodou songs, popular songs, she stands almost by herself in Haitian history.

They were a courageous generation. Dictator Francois Duvalier himself participated actively in this golden age as the director of a museum, a scholar, a journalist, and as an activist. This Golden Age was both the product of the civil society’s way of life put into question during the American Occupation and its reaction to it and the continued rise of the Haitian middle class that had begun during Lysius Salomon’s reign as President of Haiti. Haiti saw a burst of theatre, painting, literature, architecture, music, and dance that remains unparalleled. For the first time ever, there was serious Kreyol language theatre side by side with French language theatre. In painting, Haiti became internationally renown for its “naive” painters. In literature, not only was urban Haiti producing a large body of work in both Kreyol language and also in French language. Some Haitians writers became internationally renown, such as Rene Depestre, Jacques Roumain, Edris St. Amand and Jacques Stephen Alexis. In Architecture, Haiti saw applications of international styles and new urbanization. It also produced the great Haitian architect Albert Mangones. In music, Haitian urban society not only knew a resurgence of Merengue music, but also saw the development of troubadour music (which was a national phenomenon) and the invention of both the folk music genres in Haiti and the Konpa and Cadance Rampa music genres that would go on to dominate in the entire Francophone caribbean..

Emerantes De Pradines sang both vodou and merengue. Singing Merengue was not a bad thing. However, singing Vodou took a lot of courage. Emerantes’s father Auguste ‘Candyo’ (don juan) De Pradines, was a Haitian troubadour who had bridged the gap between the two worlds that I have described, both complex in their own way, with a song ‘Erzulie Nennen O’. She is the descendant of his project. She is a great singer of new Haitian humanism while the middle and upper class young and humanist’s massive turn to leftwing movements such communism, socialism, leninism, Maoism and become great names such as Jacques Roumain and Gerard Pierre Charles.

What is most beautiful about Emerantes’s music is that it vibes with the rest of the city of her time, despite the walls that come with her social origins. Emerantes De Pradines sang in and to a transforming city. Since the end of the 19th century and especially because of the American occupation, thousands of Haitians had emigrated to the cities in order to find work. Port Au Prince, the city that had listened to Mozart with open windows was now producing urban folk culture. It has a popular timbre, without compromising its artistic value.

The Haitian revolution was fought by the St. Domingue’s creoles and Bossales together. It was won by a very complex army. The Army was in essence two armies. One Army was creole led, we are know familiar with a lot of their names such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, or Jean Jacques Dessalines, and the other made up of guerrilla fighters and led by Vodou priests (still today traditionally powerful in Haitian society). Most of these guerrilla fighters and their vodou priest leaders are forgotten. Petit Noel Prieure and Gingembre Trop Fort (or: Ginger that is too strong) are names that are not that well known. It is a priest that gave the general call for the Haitian revolution at a ceremony at Bois Caiman on the 14th of August. Priests have traditionally belonged the west african elite. It is not a surprise that these Africans who had simply crossed a large body of water (the New World was a concept shared by Westerners).

After the Haitian revolution was won by the Creole Jean Jacques Dessalines for the nation’s independence, the Creole Jean Jacques Dessalines founded the ‘Empire of Haiti’ as the first project of its kind in known human history. The Empire of Haiti, a constitutional empire with no right of succession, would build a nation-state under a red and black flag, not the contemporary blue and red, that was meant to avenge not only blacks in the Americas but also native americans in the Americas. He also granted nationality to those who fought with Haitians like several Polish soldiers who defected from Napoleon’s army. He was assassinated because his empire-project got in the way of an other project. That project was to create an Elite out of the ranks of those who had been both creole and led the Haitian Revolution. This Elite would be of French civilization applied to life within Haiti’s borders. The rest of the country would work to ensure the prosperity of this Elite.  After Dessalines’s death, the creole Henri Christophe broke away from those who had assassinated Dessalines and created an Empire in the north, also under a red and black flag. It was the last instance of a black and native american nationalist Haitian Empire that wanted to educate its population.

Constitutional Empire lead to the development of the Merengue. The Merengue was Haiti’s first indigenous ‘national music’. It was Jean Jacques Dessalines himself who favored the Merengue. This first merengue was known as the ‘carabinye’. It would be very prominent under Dessalines’s Empire and under Christophe’s empire. It is still danced today. It was mainly maintained by the poor after Dessalines’s and Christophe’s death. It would make its way to bourgeois salons in Haiti again in the 19th century and the early 20th. The creoles and their descendants were split into camps, some nationalist and some not, the non nationalists danced to valse and polka music and ended the party, when sweaty, with a merengue, but the descendants of the non creole created their own way of life. This way of life was not urban civilization, but nor was it western ‘country’ life. It was both Neo-african and Haitian and from its lakou (traditional african) system of life, its coumbite (collective work), its danced funerals,  its tales came songs. It was the high place of the Haitian drum, and of Haitian traditional dance. It is also a very parochial world where paternalism runs rampant and, like in Africa before colonialism, the priest, the houngan, remains a powerful and often wealthy figure. It was not what the Haitian elite associated themselves with, nor was vodou music. Both were pushed aside and even pointed to as being not “civilization”. This has ostracized millions of Haitians, who have want to alienate themselves from an African past. Those who fought alongside poorer Haitians for an end to cultural alienation deserve to be in a Pantheon.

Emerantes De Pradines is the hope that class and culture combined can create art that serves a society at large. A wealthy girl grew up to sing to the millions of Haitians as an act of love. Most importantly, her music is intangible heritage and some of the best that the Nation has to offer.

Leave a comment