Legendary Haitian band Skah Shah has reunited after fifteen years and is determined to play for Haiti’s 200th anniversary of independence despite violent protests there.
Speaking backstage at a recent New York performance, Bandleader Loubert Chancy said that the reunion of his band could serve as an example of unity for the embroiled nation.
“To unite after 15 years and make music is a message that, regardless of our differences, we can get together and do the right thing,” he said, “If only politicians could do the same.”
Students and civic groups are calling for the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who they say is corrupt and was illegitimately re-elected after being removed from office in a 1991 coup. The New York Times reported Tuesday that supporters of the President scattered leaflets in Haiti warning protestors: “If anything happens to Aristide we’ll kill them, we’ll burn them...”. At least 21 people have been killed in demonstrations since mid-September, according to the Associated Press.
A strike organized by Aristide’s opposition, a coalition of 184 business associations, labor unions and other groups, shut down schools, banks and businesses in the capital on Tuesday. The groups are urging Haitians to stop paying taxes, saying in a statement reprinted by Reuters: “We cannot continue to give money to Aristide to pay thugs to attack us.”
But the unrest in the world’s first black republic does not stop Skah Shah from seeking to perform in Port-au-Prince on January 1st, 2004, the country’s bicentennial.
The band, which consists mostly of New York-based Haitians who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970's, has embarked on a reunion tour that they hope will culminate in a performance in Haiti on January 1st. While Skah Shah’s Chancy has his doubts that they will actually be able to perform for the bi-centennial due to the turmoil, the show is booked, and at a New York City club packed with ecstatic life-long Skah Shah fans, he remains hopeful.
“When Skah Shah is good, Haiti is good,” said Chancy.
But, in addition to the growing unrest, things are not so good in Haiti. Although it has been free from French colonial rule for 200 years, it is not free from poverty, disease, and injustice. It is not entirely free from slavery either, as one in every 10 Haitian children is a restavčk - a child who works for free in exchange for room and board, the Haitian Times reported in October. Haitian children also have one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. AIDS causes a fifth of all infant deaths in Haiti, an estimated 5,000 children are born HIV-positive every year, and the country now has an estimated 200,000 HIV/AIDS orphans, according to UNICEF.
Given the dire state of Haiti, Haitian immigrants in New York are happy to be here, but baffled by the lack of U.S. action to ease the suffering back home.
“This is the number one country in the world,” said Skah Shah percussionist Jean R. Gauthier, better known as Crane. “Why can't they do something to help Haiti?”
Crane, who came to New York in 1974, drives a school bus in addition to driving the rhythms of Skah Shah. He has eight family members in the U.S. and is hopeful that the rest of his relatives will soon come to New York.
Crane's first instrument in Haiti was a guitar with one string. Lacking money to buy more strings, he switched to making drums and has been a drummer ever since. From the time he was a child in Haiti, Crane had his sights set on America.
“Every time I dreamed in Haiti I saw New York,” he said, “I came here to survive.”
Loubert Chancy, who writes and arranges most of the band's music, once wrote a song called “America”, which he says is a reminder that “we were there to fight along side them in their revolution.” Indeed, about 750 Haitians fought alongside American troops against the British in the Siege of Savannah on Oct. 9, 1779.
“Don't forget we helped you back then, so you can help us now.”
The present manifestation of Skah Shah is a mix of new and founding members who are mostly part of New York’s vibrant Haitian community. S.O.B.'s, the popular downtown music venue of the second show on the band’s reunion tour, is packed with Haitian Americans who have dreamed for years of this special night.
The band has a stage presence that is vividly Caribbean, evoking images of palm-lined beaches and rum-induced revelry. Their music epitomizes Haiti's signature sound - compas music - which is merengue and other Latin flavors blended with jazz and funk. Twelve people are on stage including a tight, blazing brass section blowing staccato horn melodies over lazy, wandering bass lines. Positive energy floods the room and it is difficult to imagine such colorful and happy music springing from such a stricken, unlucky nation.
“The music is always happy although it carries a sad message,” said Chancy. He explained his mission to use music as a positive medium to show the world both the suffering and beauty of Haiti. Chancy also works with autistic children, and says he is used to being positive in the face of struggle.
In 1990 Chancy wrote a forward-looking song about the 2004 bi-centennial in which he sought to tell people to “drop their egos and help Haiti” -
to the songwriter's inexorable optimism.
“If you don't plant a seed, you can't have a harvest!”, he said.
The author is a journalist living in New York and can be reached at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org