How RAM's Combination of Vodou Culture and Politics Became the Soundtrack to Haiti's Modern History
A stay in Haiti with Richard Morse.
All photos by Daniel Morel
It's an interesting moment in the life of Richard Morse, a Haitian-American musician/proprietor/vodou priest living in Port-au-Prince. Haïti is still embroiled in election turmoil and ongoing social and political unrest, while his legendary band—RAM—just released its new album, fusing ceremonial Vodou rhythms with Haitian street music and electric guitars.
I'm in Port-au-Prince, late January. The occasional whiff of smoke drifts up to my hotel balcony. Like all foreigners, I've been advised not to venture out for the next couple of days due to intermittent riots, burning tires, and unforeseeable chaos. The people are upset. And they're rising up. An undecided first round of elections last October, alleged to be fraudulent, set the political scene aflame. The term of President Michel Martelly—a.k.a. konpa singer Sweet Micky—ends on February 7, and Haïti, the first Caribbean nation to revolt against its colonizers, gaining independence in 1804, is expected to elect a new president. This is all very personal to Morse, quite literally; he is not only invested in the wellbeing of the nation and his people; he is also the estranged first cousin of and former advisor to Martelly, and a vocal critic of the powers that be, both within Haïti and abroad.
Richard Auguste Morse was born in Puerto Rico in 1957 to a Haitian mother, then teaching and performing dance, and an American father, who was founding the Caribbean Studies program at the University of Puerto Rico at the time. Several years later the family moved to Woodbridge, Connecticut (both parents were Yale professors, in Drama and Latin American studies, respectively). Growing up mixed race was not easy. "It took time for me to realize that I came from a mixed family," Morse muses. "I didn't know. I asked my dad if it was true. It became more of an issue when I was a teenager in boarding school; I had heard rumors that I was of mixed race, because that's when you have to choose social camps."
Morse's next stop was Princeton, where he joined a Caribbean-style punk-rock band called Groceries. The band lived in Belle Mead, New Jersey (right outside Princeton), in a farmhouse converted into a rehearsal/living space after graduation. "My musical education took place at CBGB's, Max's Kansas City, and a great new age/punk/rock club in Trenton, New York, called King Tut's City Gardens, where we became a house band, and played with UK bands like the Thompson Twins and Flock of Seagulls," he recalls. "Removed" from the band in 1984 for being "an uncompromising artist," Morse moved to New York City, where he began working with Steve Rubell, of Studio 54 fame. "I learned things from Steve Rubell... Most importantly, to infuse all that you do with art, business, and music," recalls Morse.
In 1985, after a period of bohemian New York living, mingling with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Morse wanted to get back into making music. Morse is actually a third-generation Haitian musician; Candio, his maternal grandfather, was a twoubadou (Kreyòl for troubadour, a singer-composer), and his mother, Emerante de Pradines, is an established singer, recording several albums of Haitian roots music in the 1950s (now 97, she is in the process of opening a music and arts school in Port-au-Prince). "My mother sang the same songs we perform with RAM, but with an operatic voice and an acoustic guitar," says Morse. He'd always been fascinated with the music and culture of his motherland, and so at 28, he picked up and moved to Port-au-Prince, intending to explore the rhythms of Haitian roots music as a source of inspiration. Smitten with the music, the land, and its people—his people—Morse has been there ever since.
Once in Haïti, Morse "didn't know where to start." Soon after arriving, the country went into political upheaval, and ruthless dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled. "The military took over, and there were a lot of shootings, things I'd never experienced before." While immersing himself in Haitian culture and rhythms, "an ongoing process that continues to this day," he had a dream: "Someone came up to me and gave me a crazy message. I tried to investigate the dream once I woke up, and went to Jacmel [an old port town], where I met Madame Nerva, a renowned vodou priestess, who insisted I spend time with her." The process of his initiation into vodou began, culminating in his ordination as a priest circa 2001.
Back in 1987, Morse took over the lease for the legendary Oloffson, an enchanting but dilapidated hotel. His restoration efforts included staging art shows and hiring local traditional dance groups, finally choosing the one that would eventually become RAM. Morse fell in love with one of the singers, Lunise Exume; they married, had two children, and together still run the hotel, which has hosted numerous celebrities over the years, including Mick Jagger, Graham Greene, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The Oloffson is not only their home but the venue for RAM's electrifying Thursday night performances. With the official creation of RAM (Richard's initials) in 1990, Morse became the songwriter and Lunise began leading the female vocalists. Conceived as a roots band, influenced by the "mizikrasin" (roots music) movement that became popular in Haïti following Duvalier's exile, RAM combined ancient African rhythms, ceremonial vodou, and traditional folk music with rock 'n' roll. Incorporating traditional vodou lyrics and instruments (rara horns, petwo drums), and singing in Kreyòl, French, and English, it was a perfect combination.
In its 26 years of existence, RAM has toured throughout Haïti and North America (including a concert with Arcade Fire). In 1993 RAM contributed to the Philadelphia soundtrack. "Jonathan Demme was collecting Haitian art and doing Haitian documentaries at the time, did a Haitian compilation album. We had just completed our first recording, and I sent him a cassette. That's how it was in those days: cassette tapes. He loved the music and put it on the soundtrack," Morse explained. The fourth generation, Morse's son, William, recently joined the band. "He grew up with RAM, and used to come on tour with us." It was a natural progression for the young guitarist.
Morse is politically outspoken, critical of Haitian, American and international powers, expressing his views openly on Twitter and other platforms. He resigned from his post as advisor to the President in December 2012, realizing Martelly was "not on board," more interested in personal gain than in the recovery and well-being of his country.
"Do you ever feel you're in danger?" I ask. "I always get into trouble," he replies. "I have political opinions. That can sometimes be a tipping point. But I try not to think about personal safety." And there's the music itself. Some songs carry implicit political messages, such as "Ambago" (off RAM 1: Ayibobo), addressing the US embargo. "Our songs are metaphors, not intrinsically political," explains Morse. "People interpret the metaphors to be political. The first song that had political ramifications was ‘Fèy,’” recalls Morse. RAM added the instrumentation to the ceremonial lyrics and melody, and "once it was released, it went from being a ceremonial song to a political song." I ask if it was the people who made that leap. "Yes," he says. "And we suspected that they might." The lyrics, paraphrased:
I'm a leaf on a branch.
A bad storm came and knocked me off the branch.
The day I fall is not the day I die.
And when they need me, where are they going to find me?
. . .
Papa, My Good Lord and Saint Nicholas,
I only have one son, and they made him leave the country
"The people interpreted the bad storm as the military coup, and the leaf as [Haiti's first democratically elected president] Jean-Bertrand Aristide," explains Morse. "There's no actual politics in the lyrics themselves, but when you put the words within the context of a coup d'état and throwing out a person beloved by the people... the connection was made." Morse and the band paid a price for expressing political dissent, even if only implied. "We received a lot of persecution and intimidation when that song became popular; there were rumors that I was machine-gunned to death, that my wife had been kidnapped. Military and police came into the hotel, and there were physical threats, coming in many different ways," he recalls.
RAM just released its sixth and strongest studio recording, RAM 6: Manman m se Ginen. It's the first in ten years, mixed by Grammy-winning record producer Andrew Weiss. When I ask about the album's subtitle, Morse explains that "in Haitian vodou, the heritage gets handed down from generation to generation, and the person it gets handed down to is a Ginen. My mother is a Ginen—an inheritor of this tradition." And so is Morse.
RAM 6 draws on the African culture and traditions that live on in Haïti; this diverse, compelling set features ancient texts ("Koulou Koulou" is part of the traditional Haitian prayer "La Priye Djô"), deities (the black top hat-wearing cemetery keeper and lord of death, healing and procreation on "Mon Konpe Gede"), driving rhythms, traditional percussion and the distinctive sound of rara horns (check the opening "Papa Loko (Se Van)", celebrating the patron of healers and plants); but it also draws from other forms of popular Haitian music, mashing it up with a rock sensibility and electric guitars. Tradition is honored, preserved, and innovated all at the same time, uplifting the people during these troubled times.
There's a long line of people waiting to get into the Oloffson and catch RAM live. I'm lucky enough to be in Port-au-Prince on a Thursday night and catch this sizzling 14-piece band in action. The night begins with a traditional vodou ceremony. Ten dancers dance to the same ceremonial rhythms that RAM will later make music to, presented as dance choreographies, without eclectic accompaniment. "My mom did it throughout my childhood, singing and dancing to these rhythms" recalls Morse. "And now my wife does it, and I do it"—and so the tradition continues. Before the dancers begin, the ground is "dusted" with cornmeal, creating Veves—the spirits' "coat of arms." The ceremony has an entertainment aspect to it, "but it's also educational," explains Morse. "The more people know about the traditions, the more they enjoy the music. The more you find out about it, the deeper it gets." Around midnight, the show begins. Morse's ponytail is let loose, his white mane unleashed, as are the spirits in the room. The music and palpable, infectious energy build, the rum flows, and the dance floor fills with sweaty, dancing, gyrating bodies, elated faces. RAM's shows draw not only hotel guests, but a wide spectrum of the country's political and racial groups, all sharing in this one-of-a-kind experience—hypnotic drums, transfixing horns, shredding guitars, riveting dancers. Spirits are soaring.
Weeks later, back in North America, I catch up with Morse by phone. He is excited about the new RAM recording and its enthusiastic reception, and cautiously hopeful about the prospects of true Haitian democracy. There’s an interim government in place, working on forming an electoral council to organize the elections. “Martelly and the US State department want a second round to the first, but the population wants election verification, which might change the results. They're investigating all kinds of drug deals and irregularities, making Martelly and the US nervous," reports Morse. “This government appears to have good intentions, in spite of how it came into being.” And RAM is in the thick of it. “We've been around a long time. We're kind of the soundtrack for historical moments.” Cop RAM 6 here, and if you happen to be in Port-au-Prince on a Thursday night, you know where you need to be.
Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.