Conjunctions:27 The Archipelago: New Caribbean Writing

Five Songs (with an afterword by the translator, and notes by Gage Averill)
Manno Charlemagne
Translated by Mark Dow
Mardi Gras Man

That grinning mask is the flag you carry—
That’s what your Mardi Gras has become.
Carnival hasn’t satisfied you yet,
And Ash Wednesday is almost here.
You take the country and you walk all over it,
You sell it for a nice house across the sea.
But I see through your Mardi Gras disguise—
Let’s see what happens if you lead the parade.

As long as there are those who will take responsibility,
Who want to fight with lucidity,
I’ll open a white sheet for the honest ones—
Come lie in it, roll in it, confess your sins.
Don’t put the blame on underdevelopment,
Don’t look for words to hide behind.
Two centuries ago we were important people
Because we fought other people to make ourselves free.

In Port-au-Prince you hear all kinds of things ...
Mardi Gras Man’s parade float is an armored car.
Mardi Gras Man, I’m not afraid of you, you’re only a person.
It was the first time I saw how this works,
The Mardi Gras Man gives himself a military rank
To scare me, but it excites me—
Masked Man, I’m not afraid of you, I’m not afraid of you, I’m not afraid of you,
Masked Man, I’m not afraid of you, you’re only a person.



The one in hiding who takes wet leaves,
Pissed-in mattress-stuffing that’s not yet dry,
Is not making a fire to cook,
But to make us cough.
If you see tears running down our faces,
Our crying is not crying.
We are the conscience that stands up,
That moves on and analyzes
The puff of smoke that’s up to no good.

The people have been initiated many times,
They’re through that place in just two or three steps.
On their land, they are the only king,
Little vodou priests like Lika,
Little Jan or Little Nikola,
Cannot make them march in step.
The people know what this means:
The life that is destroyed to give life
Can’t be lost, it will not be lost.

The people know that the victory
Of respect for life and of right
Is something you have to fight for.
They know very well that you may die
If you just applaud and stand by,
No one has any doubt about that.
I don’t think the people were surprised
By what happened at midnight:
The day always follows the night.

Smoke, listen closely.
Smoke, the mistress of the house is the one who gives the orders.
Smoke, don’t let the people get angry
Or they’ll open the door and, dammit, you’re gone.


My Brother

You would like me to sing yet again
the sweet song about the little birds to please you
even as I hear the cries of the dead
coming from our filthy prison cells
you’d like me to sing of the clear water
of the streams and rivers
of the Artibonite
red with the blood of our brothers
you call yourself a pacifist
you call yourself apolitical, my brother

You really like the romantic crooners
it pleases the beautiful women
who love to faint
it doesn’t hurt anyone
when the singer shakes it
in front of a clucking America
idols supply the thrills
which make us forget about the missiles
El Salvador and Haiti
Grenada and company, my brother

When show business makes big bucks
you’re no longer racist, my brother
you like rock, you like blues
you dance, you play at losing yourself
you wash your hands of it
you’re all good little citizens
and in the sand the ostriches
sleep the sleep of the just
while the great eagle plays
at devouring the weak ones
the weak ones, the weak ones, the weak ones


International Organizations

The international organizations are not for us;
They’re there to help the thieves plunder and devour.
When people who are suffering arm themselves,
Know that they are exhausted.

International medicine stays on the sidelines.
They hold meetings, they sit and they bullshit
With a glass of champagne, a nice imported wine
And that’s it.
When people are under the gun all over the world,
Don’t give me all that analysis
When you really don’t give a damn.

What people don’t want to hear
Is the truth.
Underdeveloped reactionaries are the most dangerous of all—
When their interests are threatened, they’re always the ones
Who call for intervention against the people who are rising up.

The dominant class is very clever:
In principle they know they are the minority,
They know how to play it,
Their class position is what counts.
They’ll do the impossible, they’ll rampage
To eliminate the child in the womb.

We will fight until the corn is ripe, until we are free.
We take heart from the struggles of other peoples who are not afraid to die.
Their deliverance is their efforts, is in their blood that is shed.
As for the pills the doctors would like to prescribe,
They throw them away.

We salute all peoples who are fighting,
We honor all those who have died
For the cause of freedom.
As for those Haitian dogs who say they are cultured
While making a living at their universities
From the suffering of refugees,
We spit in your face.


I Am in Misery

We are six million Haitians—
out of every hundred thousand, there’s one who lives well,
that makes six thousand who have money.
Is it God who wanted it that way?
You are the king as far as that answer’s concerned,
I don’t think it’s written in the Bible.
Ever since the old testament
slaves have always fought against kings,
they struggle to break their chains,
they fought against pharaoh.
You yourselves Haitian peasants,
who cannot read, that’s what they say,
one rice harvest isn’t two
and it isn’t three, but it is something.

Out of every five thousand intellectuals
four thousand nine hundred are full of shit,
a bunch of gutless, spineless pimps,
they forget that the people are the only power,
say a mass for the Americans to come in,
come take the country, thank you, sir.
Contraband plus charity
is for those with no face, it’s true,
with no honor, with no dignity.
It really is a pity
for a group of people who are cultured,
who went to school, who know their abc’s,
to bend their backs
with a beggar’s bowl wherever they go.

The angry river is trouble,
its union is with the sea,
for us that is clear.
For the man it’s pretty words,
especially when he wants to play a big role,
he’s a better singer than the nightingale.
He’s always talking about union,
when you see how he wants to be president,
comes down to the neighborhood in a nice car,
pays a couple of rara bands to play their bamboo horns,
brothers, don’t get scammed,
that’s what they call the big sham.
Let the thieves in Port-au-Prince
keep selling themselves for nothing.

Six thousand people who have money—
in spite of all the old weapons
they find every time
we want to change that,
it doesn’t mean a damn thing
to the people
the day they want it to change.
I have to get out
of this misery I’m in,
neither tafia street parties
nor candidates can get me out of it.
To change this life,
to make an improvement,
it’s up to me to stand up and fight.

Gage Averill provided extremely generous and invaluable contributions to all the translations.

Francine Chouinard cowrote “Mon Frère.”

Rose-Anne Auguste cowrote “Lan Malè M Ye.”

Manno Charlemagne participated in early versions of the English.

Gregg Ellis cotranslated “Mon Frère.”

​Thanks also to Rose-Anne Auguste, Karen Brown, Gina Cunningham, Peter Eves, Katherine Kean, Fresnel Laurent, Felix Morisseau-Leroy, Guy Nozin, Jan Sebon and Tap Tap. —M. D.



Lamayòt: This song was written in 1989, the first year Carnival was held in Port-au-Prince after the fall of Duvalier in 1986. For three years, Carnival had been banned by the military authorities because it combines songs of political critique with exuberant lower-class crowds, an unstable mix for the elite in politically unstable periods. Lamayòt is an individual masque (i.e., not part of a large Carnival group). The Lamayòt carries a box in which he has hidden something odd, humorous, gross or obscene, and he charges people to look inside, or even to buy one of the contents. Parents will sometimes scare their children by telling them that the Lamayòt will put them in his box. The refrain ”Madigra m pa pè w se moun ou ye” is also found in a 1960s Carnival song by Nemours Jean-Baptiste.

La Fimen: The line in the second stanza, “The people have been initiated many times,” literally says, “The people have undergone the fire ritual (kanzo) many times.” In a song in which Manno implies that the elite and army have lit a smoking (not burning) fire to blind and confuse people, the kanzo serves as a contrasting kind of fire, one that purifies and that tests people’s faith and determination.
     When a gwo nèg (big shot) rides by in the street, the ti-nèg (little people) are supposed to line the street and bat bravo (pay collective tribute by applauding), as in the third stanza here. It is one of those many rituals of power that define hierarchy and the social order in Haiti.

Mon Frère: The Haitian term ”twoubadou” (troubadour) includes singer-songwriters of conscience like Manno, but it also encompasses the quaint ensembles that play old méringues about the beauty of Haiti as well as Creole versions of Cuban trio songs. In the first stanza of this song, Manno contrasts himself to these quaint twoubadou ensembles. The song that he refers to in the second line is “Choucoune,” one of the best-known romantic méringues, with a chorus that starts “Ti-zwazo” (or Little Birds). This is the same song that is sung in English as “Yellow Bird.” In the second stanza, Manno tells us of another kind of singer that he isn’t: commercial singers in Haiti are routinely classified into “chanteurs de charm” (romantic crooners) and “chanteurs de choq” (hard rockers).

Oganizasyon Mondyal: The former dictatorship, in an effort to skim off more profits from the country, let foreign aid groups provide all of the infrastructure, health, education and agricultural development that the Haitian government should have been providing. The resulting foreign aid bureaucracy has been compared to a shadow government that too often works in the interests of the Haitian import-export elite and against those of the peasants and the poor. One translation of the title, “World Organization,” anticipates George Bush’s kinder, gentler “New World Order.”

Lan Malè M Ye: In the last stanza and the refrain, Manno tells Haitians not to be persuaded by the institution of the koudyay. Derived from the French phrase ”coup de jaille” (spontaneous bursting-forth), the koudyay became a military celebration in Haiti, and eventually any street party “hosted” by an important person.
—Gage Averill

Manno Charlemagne was the mayor of Port-au-Prince and is Haiti’s best known singer/songwriter. His albums include Manno et Marco, Fini les Colonies and La Fimen.