Day for the Hunter, Day for the Prey


"Over the years I've been an avid fan of Gage Averill's work in The Beat Magazine.…His book, which relies on a fascinating and riveting blend of history, first-person accounts, musician interviews, and song texts, is the indispensable and entertaining companion for anyone wishing to venture into the heady and rewarding complexities of Haitian music and politics."—Jonathan Demme

An excerpt from
A Day for the Hunter,
A Day for the Prey

Popular Music and Power In Haiti
Gage Averill


This is a book about music and power, or more exactly about music in the discourse and relations of power. I contend that Haitian politics and more generally the struggle for power have insinuated themselves into every arena of musical expression. Popular music, as a discursive terrain, is a site at which power is enacted, acknowledged, accommodated, signified, contested, and resisted. Emerging in the context of power relations, popular music bears the traces of those relations. A popular Haitian aphorism has it that Ayiti se tè glise (Haiti is a slippery country), and this is nowhere truer than in the convoluted landscape of Haitian politics. What I attempt in these pages is to communicate some of the subtle and complex interactions of music and power in Haiti and to point in some possibly productive directions for understanding why they are so often yoked together.

Encounters in Music and Power

My perspectives on Haitian popular music have developed through eight years of interactions, conversations, observations, and readings, and my account of music and power in Haiti reflects those experiences. To clarify the contingent and subjective nature of my knowledge about these issues, let me begin by recounting a few brief anecdotes culled from my field notes and embellished with "head notes" (memories).

Gage Averill
On my first night in Haiti in 1988, unable to locate my contact and having lost all of my luggage (send to Suriname by mistake), I checked into a hotel and wandered into a nearby bar. There I met two American women who were working for a U.S. AID (U.S. Agency for International Development) reforestation project in the south of Haiti, and we started drinking beer and talking. They were concerned that peasants in their area, even those working for the project, seemed disillusioned with—and resistant to—the project. The peasants were engaging in sabotage, "poaching" of trees for charcoal, work slowdowns, spreading of rumors, and a variety of other tactics that the peasants called mawonaj. I was surprised by the peasants' adaptation of this term, which I knew only in relation to its original meaning: escape from slavery. Its use as a rubric for a class of tactics of resistance and subterfuge suggested a reinterpretation of the term over the course of a history of resistance to agents of oppression (whether foreign or national) against whom outright warfare was impossible. The AID workers also divulged that area rara bands were singing disparaging songs about the project and this was undermining their credibility. Rara is a processional music of peasants and the lower classes in Haiti, and because it was the beginning of rara season (roughly Lent), the bands could be heard at night just about anywhere in the country, including in the hills around us that night in Pétion-Ville. Outside, we heard a commotion, so we walked out into the street to find a small crowd pointing toward the horizon. Far off in the distance, north of Port-au-Prince, a very large building was burning, its flames visible from Pétion-Ville. It was Damien, the Agricultural Ministry and College, and tonight it was the target of mawonaj. We watched the fire rage on for some time while rara bands, their bamboo trumpets sounding like a chorus of owls in the hillsides, filled the night with sound. As we shall see, the arts of musical mawonaj figure prominently in this book.

It was a surprisingly long drive from Cap-Haïtien, the northern provincial capital, to the town of Bas-Limbé. Picking up four hitchhikers, who rode on our rental car's bumper, we bounced in near-total darkness down the dirt road leading from National Route 1 into Bas-Limbé, site of a fèt chanpèt (countryside festival) and host that night to one of Cap Haïtien's two venerable orchestras, Orchestre Septentrionale. This was in the middle of August, the month of vakans (vacation time), when towns all over Haiti hold fèt chanpèts and fèt patwonals (patron's day festivals). Septentrionale had just recorded a song at the time about this kind of event called "Plezi chanpèt" (Pleasures of the country festival). It beautifully illustrates the pleasures to be found in a chanpèt, the importance of the festival, and the money that it brings from the city to the countryside.

Sa k lòt bò ap rantre, sa k isit ap prepare
Tour moun pral fète
Nan chanpèt yo mariye, nan chanpète yo divòse
Nan chanpèt yo rekonsiliye . . .
Mesyè mesyè mete grinbank sou nou
Medanm yo mete gangans sou nou
Si se djaz ou ye mete mizik sou nou
Se nan chanpèt pou n wè nèg ki bon matcho
Se nan chanpèt pou n wè fanm ki bay filin
Se nan chanpèt pou n wè djaz ki bay konpa
Expatriates are returning, locals are preparing
Everyone's going to the fete
At the champêtre they'll marry and divorce
At the champêtre they'll reconcile . . .
Mister, Mister, give us a buck [greenback]
Madams, lay some elegance on us
If you're with the band, lay some music on us
At the fete we'll see some macho guys
At the fete we'll see women who can turn you on
At the fete, we'll see bands playing konpa

The yard for dancing at Bas-Limbé was surrounded with a chest-high block wall. There were cars parked randomly; many taptaps (pick-up trucks converted into brightly painted, covered buses); and female vendors selling sweets, kleren (cane liquor), and coffee. The ticket window was a hole in the block wall through which a number of people were trying to stick their hands. Joining the battle of the hands, I picked up tickets for our group of four, and we snaked single file through the crowd-control entrance. Inside, the atmosphere was much more "relaks." Tables dotted the grass in the dark, piled with bottles of Barbancourt rum and with bowls of lanbi (conch). The generator roared off to one side, providing the electricity to run the few lights and the band's PA system.

The twelve members of Septentrionale who were present finished tuning their instruments and launched into some older tunes in their patented rhythm, the rit boul difè (fireball rhythm) similar to konpa but with some Cuban influences and idiosyncratic touches. We joined in the slow dancing close to the stage. After a potpourri of romantic boleros, the band sang a recent song about the history of Haiti's hardships since the slave rebellion in 1791, with the following chorus:

Se yon mesaj ki pou pase de bouch an bouch
Pou tout moun konsantre nan priye
Pou n wete malediksyon ki sou tè dayiti
This is a message to pass from mouth to mouth
For everyone to concentrate on as a prayer
To remove this curse from the land of Haiti

In writing this song and others in a more socially engaged vein (called mizik angaje, or politically engaged music), Septentrionale joined many other bands and performers who were weighing in on the social transformations shaping the country. Only two years after the exile of the Duvalier family and still very much in a tumultuous period in Haiti's political history, most musicians were taking their roles as cultural leaders seriously.

Somewhere in the latter part of the song, a group of rowdy tonton makout-s (former members of the Duvalierist militia), who were at a table in the back of the enclosure, pulled out some guns and started firing into the air. This had been the standard behavior for makout-s during the Duvalier years, when it was part of their mode of enjoyment, but it shocked many at the dance during a period where the makout-s were so on the defensive. With the crowd startled, the lead singer stopped the band and shouted into the mic, "No, no. Puts your guns back. There will be no firing guns here. This is for pleasure. Relax a bit. No guns, okay?" And relax they did; the music started up, the guns went back in the holsters, and people went back to slow dancing. This informal countryside festival was intended to be as far from a political event as one gets in Haiti, yet here I was struck by how close to the surface the political struggle was, how ready to spill over into any public event. In the era of dechoukaj (uprooting, i.e., basic change), musical pleasures were generally not very far from political pressures.

Perhaps more obviously political was an incident I recounted previously in an article on Haitian carnival. At an outdoor Haitian music festival that I helped to organize in Miami at carnival time in 1989, the final band, Miami Top Vice, launched into a spirited carnival medley. I looked out into the crowd from the stage to see a number of men spread their arms to lese frape (let hit), and exuberant carnival behavior, and I realized too late that I had neglected to inform the police that this might occur. As officers dove into the crowd to arrest the men for "drunk and disorderly" behavior, the announcer grabbed the microphone, silenced the music, and encouraged the crowd to surround the police to demand the release of the Haitians. A police call for help (scarcely two months after the infamous Overtown riots in Miami) brought what seemed like every squad car and fire engine in downtown Miami to the scene within minutes. As we negotiated with the police for a tense half-hour, members of the crown began to make use of the three-toned whistles passed out as free souvenirs by the sponsor, the Nutrament Corporation (manufacturer of a sports drink). Crowd members combined the three tones into hocketed patterns (in which the melody tones are distributed among many instruments) resembling those of rara and carnival bands. Empty Nutrament cans filled in for bells, and antipolice carnival songs (part of a traditional form of censure called chan pwen-s, or sung points) were composed on the spot. As I watched these makeshift carnival ensembles fire up the crowds, I was in awe of the power of carnival music—even here in the Haitian diaspora—to animate a confrontation of this sort. In the sociopolitical space of the diaspora, the political issues were different, but the crowd was manifesting its access to the same tactics and tools of musicopolitical signification used in Haiti, the same weapons of musical mawonaj.

Thinking back on these three experiences and on many others like them, I am aware that throughout my research on Haitian music I was dogged by the question of music's role in enacting and negotiating authority, domination, co-optation, subordination, hegemony, and resistance. This book is an effort to grapple with these questions.


Copyright notice: Excerpt pages xi-xv of A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey by Gage Averill, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1997 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Gage Averill
A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti
©1997, 306 pages, 12 halftones, 2 line drawings
Cloth $65.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-03291-7
Paper $23.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-03292-4

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