- (Re)membering Haiti through Mizik Klasik
The boundaries around what is Haitian and who is Haitian are under constant debate. Although we might understand notions of authenticity to be constructed, they still power the interactions and fire the imaginations of musicians throughout Haiti. The three brief ethnographic sketches that I present here demonstrate the fluid boundaries between Christian musicians and the music of Vodou, highlighting the ways in which Haitians negotiate these boundaries through a range of musical activities known collectively as mizik klasik. In doing so, they reconceptualize, reconstitute, and (re) member Haiti.
The Haitian Kreyòl term mizik klasik denotes a genre that incorporates both traditional melodies and Western European–style classical music into a Haitian art music repertory. It stretches from classrooms to performance spaces, and elicits a variety of reactions from students, teachers, and parents. The contemporary practice of Vodou is an aspect of Haitian culture that many Haitian Protestants, in particular, find discomforting. Yet as scholars have noted, composers of mizik klasik often insert references to Vodou into their work.1 For contemporary Haitian students and their parents, these references can strain their relationship to the genre. As a dynamic and highly diverse set of spiritual practices, Vodou is an enduring portion of the nation’s history and present. It has inspired rhythmic and melodic motifs in several other musical genres. However, its place within the “respectable” genre of misik klasik is a point of contention. The consistent discrediting of religious practices with African origins has done lasting harm, and for some adherents of Protestantism or even those with membership in the figurative Church of Respectability, Vodou is the “evil” counter to their “good” faith.
A repertory that draws from elements of Vodou ceremonies necessitates difficult choices and cautious negotiations by musicians and audiences, who are caught between an array of contemporary beliefs and a heritage of mizik klasik. Repertory choices influence who participates within ensembles and, [End Page 186] more generally, who receives formal music education. By programming Vodou-referencing music, ensemble leaders open sites of cultural debate. Students, teachers, and parents can choose to engage or reject mizik klasik. These choices do more than reflect particular cultural or religious sensibilities. They also (re)member and remake Haiti.
I invoke author Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory in order to think critically about the distance between my interlocutors and their perceptions of Haitian history and culture. In her novel Beloved, Morrison uses the device of rememory to describe the experience of remembering a memory.2 It is a difficult reunion of the self with intentionally discarded knowledge. Haiti and its boundaries are undergoing a difficult, incessant reconstitution, the same sort of reunion or rememory described by Morrison. In addition to rememory’s unifying properties, the word’s gerund form—remembering—is particularly useful for thinking through the complex relationship of musicians with their nationality and belief systems. My own conversation partners have proven themselves careful students and sculptors of the meaning of Haiti, both locally and in a global context. In asking, through my research, who is Haiti and who is Haitian, I defer to the rich knowledge bestowed by their negotiations of identity. I also recognize the necessity of community in what has become highly individualized musical practice: to (re)member is to submit one’s self to a congregation, whether that be mizik klasik or Haiti itself. To (re)member is to claim a group identity for the self, and to represent that identity.
Several means of identification are at play in the following ethnographic vignettes. For example, a composite of my own identities might include Black American, pianist, accompanist, and volunteer at l’École de Musique Sainte-Trinité. L’École de Musique Sainte-Trinité, hereafter referred to as EMST, is something of an institution in Haiti. Its influence stretches over Port-au-Prince, and its shadow over the rest of the country. Its legacy has informed the struggles and paths of numerous other Haitian music schools that followed its creation. As such, its camp is an ideal place to think through the origins and destinies of the practice of mizik klasik. It is fitting that the following three boundary...