She brings out the beauty of Haiti
But with her vibrant voice, Emeline Michel also touches on serious topics
In her native Haiti, and in France, where she is hailed as a musical icon, Emeline Michel is known as ''La Reine de la Chanson Creole," or ''The Queen of the Haitian Song." For more than a decade, she has been the elegant, jubilant voice of her island nation, finding the beauty in a country most often characterized by political upheaval and social unrest.
''Every time you hear about Haiti, it's in a very negative context," Michel says from Fort Lauderdale, where she had performed at a Creole festival a day earlier. ''I look for different ways to present Haiti, without the bad news."
Not that Michel, also a noted songwriter, shies away from political content in her songs. Her eighth and latest album, ''Rasin Kreyol" (''Creole Roots"), includes tunes about AIDS, which has ravaged Haiti, and yearnings to see lasting peace in her strife-filled homeland. Michel will perform at the Bastille Day Street Dance Party on July 15, sponsored by the French Library and Cultural Center/Alliance Francaise, along with Mauritania's rising Afro-pop singer Daby Toure and Papa Wemba, master of Congolese Afro-pop and the African dance music soukous.
Born in Gonaives, Haiti, Michel says music played a essential role during her childhood, though her sole source of such entertainment was her grandmother's closely guarded radio.
''Normally, the whole day you would listen to her music," recalls Michel, who now lives in New York. But sometimes, ''she would kind of wave the radio to you, and you could choose whatever music you wanted to hear. I was her favorite in the family, so she would give me the radio often. Every type of music was played on one station -- reggae, gospel, everything. . . . You could hear South African music, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, jazz, French singers, as well as traditional music from Haiti."
Michel began singing in church, and by the age of 12, her childhood pastime evolved into a profession when she began touring with a choir.
''I started to realize people were expressing to me that I had something different when I began traveling outside of the country," she recalls. ''It was scary, but I had a feeling since I was small that I had interests that would push me to do things differently. When I was growing up, they taught you how women should stay home and take care of the children, and feed the family. And I felt I needed to know more about how the world was spinning outside."
That still-fervent interest in the ways of the world bleeds through Michel's music. While her lyrics lean toward social and political observations, she often juxtaposes serious topics with upbeat music.
For example, ''Zikap," from her latest album, which she also produced and arranged, is primed for the dance floor, but it's also a cautionary tale about AIDS. Between the hip-shaking beats, Michel warns, ''Beauty does not mean healthy, the beast can hide anywhere." It's her version of the cheery old Mary Poppins adage about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.
''Songs like that can be especially useful in my country," she says. ''People are attracted to anything that will make them dance. And while they're dancing you can get a message across. Afterwards, people will say to me, 'Oh my God, I didn't realize what that song was about.' "