RAM members discuss Vodou culture and more at New Orleans Jazz Fest
By Laura McKnight, The Times-Picayune NOLA.com
Leaders of the Haitian band RAM spoke about music, mothers, politics and Vodou this afternoon as part of a New Orleans Jazz Fest dedicated to Haiti and its strong connections to New Orleans.
The sizeable band has delighted crowds with Vodou ceremonies, parades and other shows at this year's Jazz Fest. The group closed out the Jazz and Heritage Stage today at 5:45 p.m.
Grant Morris, a New Orleans singer and songwriter as well as webcaster for the site ItsNewOrleans.com, interviewed RAM founder and vocalist Richard Morse and his wife, Lunise, a Haitian native and vocalist for the band, at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. RAM member Gaston Gaspard played keyboards for several songs performed during the interview.
RAM, formed in 1990, quickly became one of the most influential bands in Haiti through hopeful music that addresses government corruption and other social ills. RAM combines elements of rock; lyrics in Creole, French and English; and Haitian rhythms, melodies and instruments. The group's single "Ibo Lele (Dreams Come True)," is included on the soundtrack of the 1993 film "Philadelphia" starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.
Morris mentioned how Morse has been called the Bob Marley of Haiti, a label Morse brushed aside.
Arcade Fire had a busy weekend in New Orleans. Along with an onstage collaboration with Cyndi Lauper, the band’s appearance at this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival also saw Win and Régine join Haitian band RAM for a rendition of — you guessed it — “Haiti”. Check out the clip above (via @arcadefiretube).
The two bands have collaborated quite a bit over the last year. Last summer, Arcade Fire and RAM teamed up for a performance of “Haiti” during the Quebec City Summer Fest — unfortunately, as far as I can tell, no one thought it’d be a good idea to record it. More recently, the two bands reportedly recorded a DVD together during Arcade Fire’s trip to Haiti last March.
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"I doubt it," Morse said.
Morris prodded Morse for stories of military juntas angered by RAM's pro-democracy lyrics, death threats and possible assassination attempts on Morse and his band members and regimes that switched from friendly to ominous attitudes toward RAM and its music.
Morse tried to downplay his exposure to violence with generalized answers and subtle hints.
"This is all very delicate," he said.
Even through subtleties, the interview showed how music can form a powerful force, potent enough that lyrics can attract the attention -- both positive and dangerously negative -- of violent political regimes and countering would-be leaders.
Morris noted that it seems like Morse has angered every regime in Haiti at some point.
"Other people usually pick a side and stick with it," Morse responded. "We picked an ideal." As RAM's pro-democracy ideal falls in and out of favor with various groups, the band becomes a source of their ire, he said.
"Our alliances are with the Haitian people," he stressed, summing up RAM's stance as this: "Day by day, we try and do the right thing."
Morse described his background and personal ties to the island country. Morse was born in Puerto Rico to an American father and Haitian mother, singer and performer Emerante de Pradine, renowned for bringing Haitian music and vodou culture to the U.S. as entertainment.
"She's really a pioneer," Richard Morse said.
Morse was playing New Wave punk music in 1985 when he visited Haiti to retrieve world-music rhythms for his sound. He found not only rhythms but melodies, instruments, spirituality and a wife.
In contrast, Lunise Morse said she grew up in a nonmusical family.
"I'm the only crazy," she joked.
Lunise Morse said she started singing when Richard Morse recruited her from her dance troupe to perform with RAM.
"What she was doing was what I was looking for," Richard Morse said.
Richard Morse also addressed misconceptions about Vodou, which lead to misconceptions about the Haitian people.
People associate Vodou with Satan and other demonic spirits. He explained the island's beliefs with comparisons to concepts familiar to Americans.
"There is an American holiday that most resembles Vodou," he said, to which the crowd responded with "Halloween." "Everybody says that, but it's Thanksgiving."
The holiday resembles Vodou, because it centers on an offering placed on a table, giving thanks to spirits of the harvest, an idea the Pilgrims likely took from American Indians, he said.
Vodou also resembles an expansion of Catholicism, which forms an expansion of Protestantism in that the denomination includes a larger collection of deities, Morse said. Catholicism includes the Holy Trinity as well as the saints; Vodou includes the Holy Trinity, the saints, ancestors and a pantheon of Vodou spirits, he said.
Morris asked Richard Morse if he becomes possessed by some of these spirits while performing.
"I would assume that they come by and that they help us make the music that we make," said Morse, who arrived in Haiti as an atheist, but now believes in God, the Holy Trinity, the saints, spirits and ancestors.
People speak of Haitians as influenced by Satan, but outsiders should remember that westerners shackled Haitians and brought them to this land for money, Morse said.
"We have to face these crimes and we have to address them before we can move on as Americans, before we can move on as Haitians, before we can move on as a people," he said to loud applause.
Morris asked Morse why he stayed in a violent country known as the poorest in the Western hemisphere.
"It's the richest country in the Western hemisphere, too," Morse said. "You can't find these melodies just sitting around Connecticut."
Yet he admitted that with the abundance of Uzis and anger, "Anyone in their right mind would have left."
But he was determined to grasp the music.
RAM's involvement in politics will likely continue, especially since Richard Morse's first cousin, musician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, was just elected president.
The group performed a melodic song in Creole during the interview, but ended with a song in English that expresses a major desire.
"We want justice for all our friends and neighbors," the Morses sang. "We want justice for people we don't even know."