For Haitian singer Emeline Michel, music is a place for personal and collective expression.
From her gospel singing schoolgirl roots to her contemporary blend of Haitian rhythms of compas and rara with jazz, rock and bossa nova. For Emeline Michel, music has always been about forming a relationship with her audience. By enveloping her message of social justice and peace with rhythmic connections that cross borders from Haiti all the way to the continent of Africa, her voice is vibrating louder and further each year.
It all started with singing in her neighbourhood church in her birth place of Gonaïves, Haiti. By the time Emeline finished school she was ready to take the first step towards her musical destiny, winning a place to study at the Detroit Jazz Center in the United States.
The release of Emeline’s debut album, Douvanjou ka Leve, was enough to earn her the status of a serious artist in the Haitian and French Caribbean music scene. It included songs such as Plezi Mise (Pleasure in Misery) and Flanm (Flame), granting her the title of Creole music’s new goddess.
The International Dimension
An international dance hit followed in the shape of Akiko from the album Tout mon Temps, which urged Haitians to rediscover joy in the face of social and political adversity. Emeline then moved to Montreal and released Ban’m Pase, continuing to be discovered by new fans of her particular combination of jazz, samba and Haitian rhythms. Since then, the international star has recorded albums in Haiti, Montreal, and the United States, with the 2004 album Rasin Kreyol introducing her music and politically conscious lyrics to a mostly new American audience.
Emeline self-produced her 2013 acoustic album Quintessence, which featured a number of top Haitian musicians and interspersed words from important novelists and poets. It reflected upon the tragedy of the 2010 earthquake as well as appealing to the spirit of re-emergence. The nomadic artist now officially splits her time between her home country and New York, where her son attends school. Emeline continues to traverse the world displaying her musical talent.
Supporting the Port-au-Prince Jazz festival
Emeline recently played the 10th International Jazz Festival of Port-au-Prince. Her performance went down a storm with a huge crowd which was, as always, invigorated by Emeline’s eclectic and moving rhythms. She said: “I flirt with different styles and my music has different colours. So I can go easily on a jazz tune and I could also go down with a soca and traditional rhythm from Haiti, so that’s really my favourite style, blending a little bit of jazz.”
She emphasises how the lack of cover charge at the Haitian festival allowed it to become a much more open experience, and one that must continue for the benefit of her fellow Haitians.
She described it as, “The biggest gift ever. Having that for free allows so many people who cannot afford to be here, to come, and to me it’s a blessing to simply see these faces that I never seen at my shows. Music is the one place where all the prejudices just fall. In my country, it’s where everybody gathers to forget about all the friction.”
She added: “It’s a big accomplishment also because this festival has been running for ten years. I have to say reverence for the organisers, they’re doing something that is outstanding.”
An evolving musical style
Emeline believes her own style is evolving in what might seem to be an unexpected way for a singer who regularly performs for thousands of people. Rather than expanding her stage presence with an ever greater number of layers and musicians, she believes there are times when it’s better to strip away some elements and quieten the fanfare, to concentrate on creating something simpler and purer: “I believe my style is now barer. I’m becoming minimalistic. I still end up with the full band, but I do believe in not playing it all the time, to just play and let it go, and flow, in low, low, low keys. That’s one thing that I learned along the way. I’ve been more into having the crowd go pa pa pa! Sometimes you forget that this is a moment to take, just enjoy it, savour it.”
Still nervous after all these years!
It may seem strange to imagine that after 25 years, an artist of Emeline’s great experience and a 10 album career could still find herself feeling nervous with anticipation before a big performance. Emeline insists some things never change: “Yes, I get nervous! I don’t think that will ever go away. It’s not a nervousness of how prepared I feel. It’s an anxiety, like you’re going to meet your boyfriend. The stage is sacred for me, it’s like there’s this full circle with the audience and myself. And I’m always like, ‘Oh God I wanna make sure we got that, they receive that,’ so I always feel nervous.”
She feels the urge sometimes for a closer relationship with her audience, which can be created by more intimate gigs: “For some reason I have a weakness for small, tiny audiences. You can see every face and they think, ‘oof this is a lavish experience’. But of course, often I have a situation where I play for ten thousand people out in the open and the energy is there.”
Right now, Emeline is on a tour of North America, part of a trio of revered artists criss-crossing the US and Canada. She’ll be performing 40 dates in two months with Brushy One String, who plays soulful Jamaican music on his single guitar string, and African-Brazilian samba stars Casuarina, in a veritable carnival of music and rhythm. Emeline muses: “It was an excellent idea, going on tour with a Jamaican, a Brazilian and a Haitian – it sounds spicy!”