It was just a song about a leaf, but at a certain time, I’m told, like seemingly anything in Haiti, it could get you killed. “Fèy” was that kind of hit-slash-occupational hazard for RAM, the Parliament Funkadelic-sized cast of Haitian dancers and folkloric musicians who performed it. The track itself sounds more sedative than seditious: Lead singer Lunise Morse’s phantom voice floats upwards and away from the falling leaf of which she sings—that leaf, a translucent metaphor for the fallen president for whom she mourns. Drums pitter at the speed of goat hooves while guitars pendulum from high chimes to low, drifting into an intoxicating and unreal hypnogogia like the pleasant part of a Robitussin dream. Woozy.
It’s hard to fathom how dancing to a mix so delicate could draw a death sentence, but this was mizik rasin—roots music, or “vodou rock,” if you will. And that was 1992, the year paramilitary death squads hunted down supporters of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The island’s vulnerable people hid for survival behind the walls of nunneries or the hulls of Miami-bound boats, or, failing all that, behind cryptic song titles. Like RAM’s “Na’n Pa Wè Yo.” “The People We Don’t See.” Or Boukman Eksperyans’ “Ke’m Pa Sote.” “I am Not Afraid.”
Two decades and a 7.0 since RAM’s namesake bandleader Richard A. Morse risked his neck to thumb his bass and nose at the Haitian power structure, the 54-year-old finds himself crusading for another outsider president: His cousin. “Sweet Micky” Michel Martelly is an ex-carnival singer with exactly no political experience, which immediately renders him a top contender for the presidency in this country where politics drops a quick stench on any hopeful that wades into it. At the time of writing, Sweet Micky leads the vote count to become the songwriter-in-chief of the most catastrophically failed state in the Western hemisphere. For Morse, that win could lead to the start of his career in the civil service, and the end of his band.
The opposition might describe it as the end of the world.
“We’ll do a couple gigs, then we’ll sit down and decide on the future, as to whether it’s better to be in a band, or to try and run the country,” Morse says. “People need music, but do I have other talents I need to be exploring?
“I don’t know, getting things done. I haven’t had a job since I was a kid.”
Even by Caribbean standards, Morse is taking an odd path to the presidential palace. His biography begins, not in the islands, but in a lost New York of punk era dives like CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City. The boarding school-reared son of an American academic and a Haitian singer, Morse left Princeton with an Anthropology degree to join the Groceries, a new wave set that hit its heyday gigging alongside the Thompson Twins. Five years into that escapade, Morse tumbled out of the band. Then—perhaps because cynicism towards elected leaders didn’t run deep enough among the CBGBs set— he decamped to Haiti.
The hotel he bought in Port-au-Prince was supposed to be a sanctuary from the country’s turbulent politics: a live music nightclub where aid workers and tonton macoute gunmen could shindig alongside one another in what was once Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ resort of choice. But, like everything on that half of Hispaniola, the hotel became ensnared in violent, Haitian politics, even if Morse’s U.S. citizenship made him a tougher target for the paramilitary goons that brought the nation to its knees in the ’90s.
In 1994, Morse was temporarily kidnapped by government troops for singing “Fèy” at a concert loaded with enough armed soldiers to reconquer Grenada. The incident inspired a gun check at the door. The weaponry—grenades, rockets, pistols, rifles—overfilled footlockers. A decade later, three of his bandmates were abducted for singing a song called “Justice.” The irony must have been lost on the perpetrators.
“I never wanted to get involved in all that, I just wanted to be in a band,” Morse says. “But sometimes, being in a band is just not enough. The earthquake showed us that you have to get involved.”
When we talk, days before the vote, the bandleader sounds already more enthused about his cousin’s campaign tour than his band’s US tour. After giving up on the West Africa tour he always envisioned, and after the band plays Central Park, they’re going to “have some conversations.”
“There’s things to think about,” he says. “I’ve been in this band for 20 years. Sometimes, I’m out on the road with my cousin and we’re campaigning and I’m looking at the kids, the old folks, the lack of infrastructure, the misery, and I’m wondering if I’m taking care of my responsibilities to the best of my abilities.”
For better, worse, or something in between, an island of two million homeless is votes away from discovering what the best of those abilities can do.