On 'Radyo Siwèl' Laveaux examines resistance, diaspora, and her connections with Haitian history
Photos by Romain Staros Staropoli
Every morning, Mélissa Laveaux gets up early. By the time we connect, it’s not yet afternoon, and she has already gone to the gym and carried 20 liters of soil up her steep five story walk up in Paris. Repotting her plants, Mélissa takes roots in France, a place she has lived for the past 10 years despite having not yet acquired citizenship.
The Canadian-born Haitian artist – between teaching workshops on punk for youth in a Paris banlieue, working on her musical performance piece “Et parfois la Fleur est un Couteau” and partaking in local Afro-feminist happenings – has recently released her latest musical project, Radyo Siwèl. Made up of twelve re-workings of Haitian songs and one original composition, the record debuted in France and Switzerland before seeing its North American release last Friday via French label No Format.
The album is accompanied by a series of five videos, which feature everyday forms of knowledge transfers, such as proverbs and telephone calls, to signal ways that culture is relayed in diaspora. Laveaux reflects on the process: “the ideas for the videos worked well because there were times when I couldn’t find lyrics, couldn’t find melodies, couldn’t find recordings.” The compelling short videos close the distance between the experiences of secondary sources (such as Alan Lomax, Katherine Dunham, and Zora Neale Hurston) and Laveaux’s personal relationship to Haitian culture and heritage. But the question of non-transferred knowledge remains present in both the album and the videos. Channelling frustration that her parents did not teach her Creole or about the U.S. invasion and occupation from Haiti from 1915–34, Laveaux transforms intergenerational static and hazy ambiguity into a call to create.
CHANELLE ADAMS: Let’s start with the title of your album, Radyo Siwèl. Where does the name come from and what does it mean to you?
MÉLISSA LAVEAUX: Radyo Siwèl comes from the “Bann’ na Siwèl,” Haitian country bands that played a lot of these songs. I use the word for radio to pay tribute to those bands and to acknowledge that there is a lot lost in transmission. When I was researching songs, there were times when I couldn’t find the lyrics, melodies, or recordings. Then, there’s this whole aspect that I did not grow up knowing about the U.S. occupation of Haiti. My parents, super proud of Haiti being the first independent Black republic, didn’t tell me about it. When I found out, it was as if something had been lost – like the receptive end of a radio that is sometimes is not as reliable as you thought.
This album is largely about diaspora and resistance. Many of us in the diaspora navigate questions and concerns of legitimacy and homeland, self-imposed or otherwise. Growing up in Canada with Haitian parents and then moving to Paris, how do you personally negotiate questions of authenticity of culture and language when it comes to your work? What has been your relationship to the idea of home in diaspora?
This takes me back to my second album, Dying Is a Wild Night, which was mostly about being homesick. Or, déchirée, in French, the feeling of being torn away from my family and Canada.
I moved to France for several reasons, one of which was because I got a contract. That move upset my parents. I came out to them one time when I visited and they were really disappointed. They were all like “this is the colonizer taking our child” which is not true because I’ve been gay for so long…But basically, that whole album is about how I had to die a million deaths just to find myself again and construct a new identity. And I continue to do so every day.
My time in France has been a very long lesson in survival and adaptability. Immigrating to France is not super easy. You have to develop a thick skin or you really can’t make it.
Right! It is, by no means, simple. I just moved to Marseille less than two years ago, and have noticed that, while the legal system expects everyone to assimilate by way of a post-racial meritocracy, people are really fixated on categorizing people and demanding people’s “origins.”
When I first moved to France, it was really harsh the way people kept looking towards me for Haitian authenticity. But, I was born and raised in Canada and since my parents really wanted me to integrate in Canada so they didn’t teach me Creole. It is frustrating because here in France, it is my heritage and the fact that I have written songs in Creole, despite my limitations in terms of grammar, that makes me noticeable as a musician.
I’m always going to be self conscious about being Haitian enough. It has always troubled me that I’ve made a career out of being a Haitian-Canadian artist. I always have and will continue to tell people there’s a lot of Haitian artists who sing in Creole much better than I do, but people here don’t necessarily want to hear that.
Where do you draw your personal wellsprings of power and resistance?
It’s hard not to be extremely proud of being Haitian when you know your history. It does something to you.
I think of myself as very Canadian in that I am really afraid of upsetting people, but also now living in France where people try to shut me down for so many things that I do, my Haitian ancestors give me a source of strength, saying “you are not going to take that bullshit” and I feel justified in doing so.
My parents are super proud of Haiti being the first independent Black republic. My dad had a book about Toussaint L’Ouverture called Black Napoleon which had been handed down to him when he was a kid. My parents made a point of making sure I knew that I come from really smart and genius people who outwitted an empire. Learning more about the parts of Haitian history that my parents did not necessarily think to offer me – again this idea of transmission – has really helped me stand up to a lot of oppressive discourse both with regards to Haiti and also negotiating how much I’m supposed to feel like I owe France for my career – a place where I am literally producing a cultural product but still do not have the same rights as a citizen.
All of the songs on Radyo Siwèl are either traditional vodou folk songs, covers of Haitian artists, or inspired by your own archival research. What are some of the stories behind the songs you selected for the album and the reasons why you chose to record them?
My parent’s not being accepting of my sexuality was really sad for me. All of the sudden, I was finding all these songs that were a “fuck you” to the American occupation of the island and were also super sexually suggestive either blatantly or more subtly.
There’s this really good song called by Frantz Casséus “Nan Fon Bwa” that talks about celebrating in the woods, where there’s there’s water, flowers, drums and Yanvalou dancing. And the thing is, if you know vodou, you know those are elements and offerings involved in ritual and celebration. The song is really poetic and then it’s also actually quite militant to acknowledge that the occupation is trying to break people’s spirits by forbidding these practices, but really the song is saying let’s just go into the forest and do it anyway. I thought it was very beautiful because it sounds like a cool party, and it’s saying keep going, we don’t care. It’s also cool to see how open it was to sexuality and different genders because you don’t know which spirit is going to possess you, take hold of you and convene with you.
“Angeli-ko,” also on the album, sounds misogynistic at first because at first listen it is about telling a young woman to go back to her mother’s house because she cook and can’t clean. But really, if you pay attention to the lyrics, it is talking about Angelique Coles, the wife of the general occupying Haiti, and telling the American military to go home. So when the American military needed to chill out and kick off their boots and relax, so where did they go? They would go to jazz bars. And what are they playing? A song making fun of them right under their noses. It is so clever.
Creole is a brilliant language in terms of its economy in that a word can mean several things but just one word in a different context can mean different times. And how that can be useful in terms of songwriting if you are trying to resist and writing subtly. Haitian Creole remains a puzzle for me, and I don’t know enough, and I hope to know more, but what I do know it is a brilliant, brilliant coding.
Learning more about the parts of Haitian history that my parents did not necessarily think to offer me – again this idea of transmission – has really helped me stand up to a lot of oppressive discourse both with regards to Haiti and also negotiating how much I’m supposed to feel like I owe France for my career – a place where I am literally producing a cultural product but still do not have the same rights as a citizen.
You have made a career out of doing covers. What is the difference in your process between your cover of Elliott Smith versus a Haitian vodou folk song? Do you approach them the same in terms of integrating them into your repertoire and making them your own?
With Elliott Smith, I did not know it would go so far. I thought I would just play it at a show, I didn’t know that the cover would lead to signing a contract or that it would become a single which would then play on French public radio. So I didn’t have many qualms or hesitations going into it.
Generally, when I do a cover, I try to make the language work in my favor. The idea is to wrap my tongue around it. So when I was covering Elliot Smith the rhythm sort of changes, I sort of change the way I sing, and I change the way he would sing it.
And the same thing sort of happened with Radyo Siwèl, but it was different. When you sing in different languages, you have a different breath. When I sing in Creole, I am singing in the most powerful language in the history of my blood. I kept thinking, “if I do this wrong, this will come back to get me.” There is no way Elliot Smith will come get me if I do this wrong, but my grandmother (who died right before I was able to go to Haiti so I wasn’t able to ask her about any of the songs or anything) is going to kill me if I don’t do this right. I had so much more pressure.
Covering these songs was incredibly rich. What is most important to me is that the story comes through. I do not have to play traditional Haitian music to tell these stories, because that is not what I play the best. My best cover, the ones that will ring the most true, are in my best performance, and that performance is in indie pop.