Haitian musicians have recently been seriously focused on making music out of poetry. It is an interesting practice that has produced countless gems, such as the albums of Wooly St Louis Jean and Tamara Suffren.
In 1570, during the French Renaissance, a well known French poet Jean-Antoine de Baif founded the “Academie de musique et de poesie” along with composer Joachim Thibault de Courville. They aimed to combine music and poetry in order to revive the Roman and Greek practice of putting poetry to music, amongst other things, and for some time put on infamous concerts attended by the high society of the time. Combining music and poetry either for theater or for non-theatrical song had been prevalent in both ancient Greece and in ancient Rome but the middle ages had put an end to the vitality of the practice.
Chorus from The Bacchai
Euripides (480-406 B.C.)
Where is the home for me?
O Cyprus, set in the sea,
Aphrodite’s home in the soft sea-foam,
Would I lend to thee;
Where in the wings of the Lovers are furled,
And faint the heart of the world!
Ay, or to Paphos’ isle,
Where the rainless meadows smile
With riches rolled from the hundred-fold
Mouths of the far-off Nile,
Streaming beneath the waves
To the roots of the seaward caves!
Jean Antoine de Baif’s would not be the only time in European history that poets would be interested in working with musicians and vice verso. By the 20th century, ancient Rome and Greece were again through infamous collaborations such as Jean Cocteau and Edith Piaf’s and Leo Ferre and Aragon’s.
The Europeans were not the only ones doing it this time and in the nations of the Americas, colonies and former colonies, turning poetry and to song came to be practiced. A song like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very popular example of the practice. In Haiti, artists of upper class and middle class backgrounds also aspired to turn poetry into music. The very first successful version of this was “Choucoune” a poem by Oswald Durand written in 1893 composed into a song by Micheal Morton. It is still very well known in Haiti and was copied by Harry Belafonte as the song “Yellow Bird.” It was originally about a woman named Marie Noel Belizaire whose eyes “shone like candle light.” The practice continued on with classic interpretations of one of Haitian poet Emile Roumer’s poems “Marabout de mon coeur”, or ‘Marabout (a dark skin woman with very long hair found in the north of Haiti probably of Senegalese descent) of my heart’ and other lesser known songs.
In the 21st century, the practice of putting poetry to music continues in Haiti as it also does in Europe. The poet is are most put to song is Syto Cave. The internationally known Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot is a major advocate of turning poetry into music and many of his poems have been composed into music. A singer Wooly St Louis Jean has made an entire career out of turning poetry into music. Tamara Suffren, an incredible singer, has also done the same, though she does not call her music “poetry turned into music” unlike Wooly St Louis Jean. The combination has produced songs that explore imagery and language as only poetry really ever does. Their songs are beloved and though most are not popular, some crossover and become radio hits feeding the weak polity that Haiti is and its agora of cynicism with humanity and profound beauty.