Some have called him Haiti’s answer to Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. Known for his organic roots music and sublime tenor, Charlemagne was born in 1948 in Carrefour, an urban area in Port-au-Prince. In 1984, he released Fini Les Colonies, on the LP format that was popular in the 1980s. The album contained 11 tracks, many of which centered on the trials of the poor in Haiti. This record was followed four years later by Nou Nan male Ak oganizasyon mondyal (We’re in Trouble with World Organizations), a set of songs that had him accompanied by little instrumentation other than his guitar and voice.
In 1994, Charlemagne released La Fimen (Smoke) one of his most acclaimed albums. This exhaustive song collection contained several folksy tracks that had become his trademark.
Journalist Vernon Silver interviewed the singer for the November 1994 issue of the magazine Vibe. The singer detailed how members of Haiti’s military attempted to take away his life in the Fall of 1991. According to Silver’s article, Charlemagne had to find refuge at the Argentine Embassy in Haiti. In 1992, according to Silver, Charlemagne attempted to return to Haiti, but was met with soldiers upon landing in Haiti, who put him on a plane back to exile. He returned to Haiti in the mid-1990s.
The book A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti by Gage Averill revealed that Charlemagne became mayor of Port-au-Prince in 1997. He remained active on the music scene throughout the 1990s, including the recording of a Bò Tab La (A Seat at the Table), a song especially created for carnival season.
Throughout the late 2000s, Charlemagne could be seen performing at Tap Tap, as a guest artist at posh Haitian restaurant in Miami Beach. In 2006, the creative collective Fokal released Manno Charlemagne: trente ans de chansons (Manno Charlemagne: 30 Years of Song), a tribute to the singer’s life and musical accomplishments.
In 2010, Canadian-Haitian filmmaker and archivist Frantz Voltaire released Konviksyon, a documentary about the singer’s life.
According to the news publication Haiti Liberte, in mid-summer 2017, the singer underwent surgery to have a tumor removed from his brain.
His vast legacy as Haiti’s folk singing griot follows him everywhere he goes.
Check out a performance by the artist, at the Duke Humanities Institute below.
[Main Photo Credit: Hougan Sydney]
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