Books & Arts
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.
        More Books and Artsl            
Posted June 12, 2007
  ny_times_logo_arts.gif (567 bytes)
Haiti's favorite son - its superstar performer, its 'its president' - has been living quietly in the Wellington area
By LIZ BALMASEDA, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

The president of the Konpa Nation, a borderless, movable state of sustained enchantment, is contemplating his empty house. It is a lovely, two-story home in an upscale development at the edge of Wellington, but all the furniture has been packed up and shipped to its new destination, the place Michel Martelly really calls home. Port-au-Prince, chéri.

Martelly, 46, sits in the cavernous foyer on a seat he ripped out of the family van. He seems to be gazing out wistfully at the pool patio outside, but he isn't. He is gazing well beyond it.

Just like the rest of his family, his wife and four children, Martelly is counting the minutes until he's back in Haiti.

Months after he "retired" from the concert circuit and the back-to-back parties, he feels it's time to take a calculated risk and go home.

Haiti is where he was born. More important, it is where Sweet Micky was born.

Sweet Micky, the charismatic, bawdy "rude boy" that has been a superstar of Haitian konpa music for nearly 20 years, is Martelly's alter-ego, the larger-than-life figure who packs concerts, dance halls and city streets during carnival.

So dominant is Micky's presence in Haiti's pop culture that 13 years ago he proclaimed himself "Prezidan," The President.

Taking jabs at the newly restored president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Micky had saluted his public in mock formality - "My fellow Haitians, this has been your president, speaking from the National Palace."

It was a different kind of coup in a land all too familiar with coups. Micky interlaced jarring political and social commentary with the fluid dance rhythms of konpa, Haiti's sensuous, laid-back version of a Dominican merengue. Konpa is merengue without the sharp edges. It isn't meant to wipe you out after one dance - no, a good konpa sequence keeps you dancing all night.

But there was nothing laid-back about Micky's onstage performances. The President jumped on stage in drag. Or in diapers - taking swigs from a bottle of Barbancourt rum. He punctuated songs with machine-fire-like riffs on his synthesizer.

"Excuse my language," he now says, leaping to his feet for dramatic effect, "but on stage I'm what you call a bad mother———."

Shut your mouth.

Then again - apologies to Shaft - we're talking about Sweet Micky. And, yes, he's a complicated man, and no one understands him like his woman.

On this recent afternoon, she's digging through an old suitcase stuffed with Sweet Micky photographs and newspaper clippings, stopping every so often to explain the bizarre images in a matter-of-fact tone.

Sophia Martelly, 42, no longer flinches when she sees pictures of her husband on stage in underwear, or in a miniskirt. That's not Michel - it's Micky.

Michel is a doting father of four children, ages 19 to 6. He is the guy who cut back his hours at work to be closer to his family. He's the dad who has instilled a love of music in his children and has encouraged them to express themselves through native song. He's the proud Haitian expatriate who beams when his kids, all partly named Michel after him, write love songs to their homeland - in fluent kreyol. He even produced the Martelly children's first CD and accompanying video.

Michel is nothing like.

Micky, that potty-mouthed party animal.

Broward gig

Micky is the guy who performed several nights earlier at the Marabou Café in Pembroke Pines before a packed house that seemed to bob and bounce in slow motion.

That night, just as Micky had stirred the crowd into a froth, fellow Haitian superstar Wyclef Jean, his favorite accomplice, leaped onto the stage to jam along.

Jean, the former Fugee who is Micky's hip-hop counterpart, has recorded with the konpa star, even proclaimed him an "MVP" on one of his albums.

There they were, the most famous konpa revivalist in Haiti and the most famous voice of the Haitian diaspora, sharing a cramped stage in a random strip mall.

"Put your guns in the air and salute The President!" shouted Jean, prompting a wave of arms.

For years, as Micky dropped CDs and toured in and out of Haiti, his family made its life in a well-to-do enclave of Port-au-Prince.

The entertainer shuttled between the family home and his condo near Biscayne Bay in Miami. But two years ago, at a time when violence and kidnappings in Haiti were rampant, Martelly begged his wife to take the children to Palm Beach County, where he had found a home at Wellington View.

"Back then, they were kidnapping like 100 persons per day, or something ridiculous. These were people we knew. I was just waiting for the day when my wife would tell me that one of my kids had gotten kidnapped. I couldn't let that happen," he says.

But his wife wasn't too convinced. She didn't want to leave the extended family, the children's school and their friends. But one day, after Martelly gave her an ultimatum, she packed up the kids and left Haiti. She was so upset she didn't even tell her husband, who was busy performing.

"I didn't find out until after they were here," he says. "But it was what we had to do at the time."

Now, he says, things aren't as bad.

"It's not totally safe, but it's getting better every day. You can feel it. And the president we have now is definitely willing to change things," says Martelly.

Changr for the better

The president, Rene Preval, who won the 2006 elections with the wide support of Haiti's poor, is a good friend. Unlike former President Aristide, whom Martelly calls "the devil," Preval has inspired confidence in him.

At this year's carnival, in February, Micky ribbed the president with his best gallows humor in his annual theme song. He said he had come home just to see if the rumors about Preval were really true. Was he sick with prostate cancer, or was he just playing? Eleven years earlier, shortly after Preval had taken office in his first presidential term, Micky had taunted him, "from one president to the other," as his float approached the National Palace.

"I want to see you dance!" Micky teased.

The newly inaugurated president obliged, swiveling his hips to the konpa strains.

That day, Micky joked about the fact that he would forever be president of the streets. Now, there are times he talks about politics in a less fleeting manner. He says he's given some thought to political life.

"With the popularity I have and the dedication I have to help my people, you never know how it's going to play out," he says. "But being crazy out there, doing my music, I was lacking some maturity.

"I'm not saying I'm ready now, but I'm definitely more mature now."

He ignores an eye-rolling look from his wife and goes on:

"And the situation has changed in Haiti. I could probably feel more secure getting into politics than 10, 15 years ago."

Not so unsual

Elected office for Sweet Micky? Why not?

It wouldn't be the first time a popular musician won office on the island of Hispaniola. Protest singer Manno Charlemagne served as mayor of Port-au-Prince some years ago. And next door, in the Dominican Republic, superstar merengue singer Johnny Ventura enjoyed a distinguished career in politics, including a stint as mayor of Santo Domingo.

But there will be no such mayoral path for him, Martelly insists.

"If I run for anything someday - if - I'm going to aim straight at the presidency."

And should Michel Martelly ever become president of Haiti, it would be a remarkable feat for the mischievous kid who grew up on a middle-class street in the Carrefour section of Port-au-Prince, the son of a Shell Oil supervisor.

His church-going parents sent him to good schools, but Martelly had trouble sticking to his goals. He'd drift from subject to subject, engineering to computer programming, but never finish his coursework. He joined the Haitian army, but he says he got kicked out after he "got a girl pregnant." "It wasn't just a girl," his wife, Sophia, nudges him. "No, it wasn't just a girl," he concedes.

It was the general's goddaughter.

Martelly shrugs.

"It all worked out," he says. "I became Sweet Micky, and Sweet Micky is still alive and kicking." There may have never been a Sweet Micky if not for Sophia.

They met in Port-au-Prince in the early 1980s and started going out as friends in a group. Back then, Sophia recalls, Martelly had quite a sexy nickname.

"Don Miguel," she enunciates in Spanish, "El que nunca falla."

The man who never fails.

But the group split up when Don Miguel got married and went off to Colorado to live with his American wife.

Things didn't go well for either Sophia or Martelly. Sophia suffered a dramatic breakup with her boyfriend. Martelly was having troubles with his wife. When Sophia called him to cry on his shoulder, Martelly's wife got jealous.

Martelly divorced her and returned to Haiti, where Sophia was waiting. A year later, in 1987, they moved to Miami, where they married and had their first child, Michel Olivier.

Addiction on the job

Martelly took a job in construction, working long hours and finding himself surrounded by a new kind of temptation. In between cement deliveries, his co-workers took to smoking crack. Martelly says he got hooked. He started getting to work hours earlier, just to get high.

"Then one day I got to work at 6 in the morning and no one was there. I wanted crack. I went to the office, where we used to smoke, I got down on my knees and started looking for any little white spot I could see," he says.

That day, as he scoured the room on his hands and knees, he stopped cold.

"I was like, 'Wow, what am I doing?'"

So he decided to tell his boss what was going on. He didn't get fired, he says - he got promoted. And he got a whole new crew, a clean one.

"I never went to rehab. When people say they can't quit, that's just bull."

But he realized it was time for a change.

We had a baby, 1 month old. We decided to go back to Haiti," he says with a sudden clap of hands. "Two months later, Sweet Micky was born."

Martelly took a modest keyboard Sophia had given him for his birthday and went to play at a piano bar for a couple of months. Then one night, the owner of a club called Le Florville in Kenscoff, a mountain town south of Port-au-Prince, asked him to fill in for her traveling piano player.

"I rocked the house," he boasts.

A family friend came up and raved:

"This is Sweet Micky for sweet people."

The slogan stuck. After two years, Martelly shortened it to Sweet Micky.

Popularity spreads

In the early years, Micky became a favorite of the well-to-do set and the military. Although his popularity has since transcended class and race in Haiti, there were times when it was certainly convenient to have fans in powerful places. He managed to play through two coup d'etats and emerge unscathed. Most memorably, he performed right through the Sept. 30, 1991, coup that deposed Aristide.

As he was performing in the city of Arcahaie, northwest of Port-au-Prince, a military friend came to him with a warning:

"End the party now because there are some problems in the capital." En route back to Port-au-Prince, the roads were blocked. Of course, once the guards realized it was Micky in the car, they whisked him through.

A couple of years later, as Aristide prepared to return to power, Martelly left Haiti and went into self-imposed exile in Miami. When he returned, for carnival in 1996, the country went wild. Fans mobbed the roads leading to the airport.

Sophia has those photos, images depicting swarms of people for blocks on end. The Haitian son had returned.

Martelly looks at the pictures and smiles in a mix of disbelief and anticipation. He can almost taste Haiti.

"I can't wait to go back," he says. "Here, I'm just a number. In Haiti, I am The President." Sponsored Links

WebsitesCopyright © 2007, The Palm Beach Post. Published June 12, 2007., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous