THE FIRST TIME I SAW MICHEL MARTELLY, he was flirting. A flight attendant had buttonholed him as we filed off the plane. She had caramel-coloured skin and a honey-toned wig. Martelly laughed at something she said and then looked down, diffident smile still visible. Then he looked up and said something that made her face shine with delight.
The second time I saw Michel Martelly, he was playing at the Trotyl Bar and Lounge in Pétionville. Whatever relief the night gave from summer's blazing heat, the density of our bodies at the club took away. We were eager, then impatient. Sound check started at midnight, and he fiddled with a whining amplifier for 45 minutes. When Martelly finally started singing, we were too sweaty or footsore to wait: couples lunged for each other and swayed to the slow, syncopated beat.
As musician, Martelly went by the name Sweet Micky. He also called himself the President of Kompa, the music that provides an excuse for the close-danced méringue, heavy on the hips and susceptible to a grinding manoeuvre that Haitians call plogè. The music itself is mostly treacle, mostly love songs, and during the 29-year-long Duvalier family dictatorship, the genre flourished. It posed no threat: rather, it soothed, anesthetised. Good-times music in a bad-times place. Micky started singing after Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, as the junta that replaced him was revealing itself to be as brutal and corrupt as the dictator. Micky played for them, and for the wealthy elite.
Already a subscriber? Sign in