Playing the bongo drums to adoring fans is unusual as presidential campaigns go but this is the Caribbean and Michel Martelly is no ordinary candidate: he is Haiti’s former carnival king, as Agence France Presse reports.
In the nation’s cultural capital Jacmel, residents donned extravagant papier mache masks, started up the band and marched through the streets, refusing to be cowed by natural disaster and political turmoil.
Many of the town’s brightly-colored, colonial-era facades were destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake that claimed a quarter of a million Haitian lives, including some 500 Jacmellians.
The carnival, the city’s lifeblood, was canceled last year as traumatized residents rebuilt shattered lives, but the catchy rhythm of traditional compas music blares once more through historic streets.
Last night, the town had a surprise visitor when the artist formerly known as “Sweet Micky,” the self-proclaimed “president of compas,” held a rally by the beach to whip up support ahead of next month’s run-off election.
Martelly, 50, is a familiar figure here and is hopeful his iconic status as a musician and outrageous carnival performer can help take him all the way to the flattened presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
But for some voters in a nation confronted by deadly serious problems, ranging from cholera and corruption to endemic poverty and returning dictators, Martelly’s colorful past is no cure-all.
Violet, 18, who arrived at the rally in a pink shirt on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle does not seem fussed. She just hoped it was the rock star that turned up, not the politician.
“I came for Sweet Micky, but I think I’ll get Michel Martelly,” she told AFP, among hundreds of delighted girls in pink vying to catch a glimpse of their hero.
Pink is Martelly’s signature color and has been for years, since he regularly rocked the floats at the carnival.
Pink posters, pink flags, pink shirts, pink hats and a special pink stage, adorned the city overnight, before his supposedly surprise arrival.
As a musical star, Martelly was famous for dirty, straight-talking songs. His 1990’s hit “Yon ti Moral” called out the government and police forces for stealing rice in a corruption scheme during Haiti’s embargo days.
Mirlande Manigat, the other candidate for president, has framed this vital presidential election around morality, a pointed jab at Martelly’s former wild days and off-color lyrics.
Before he arrived to take the stage in Jacmel, a singer led the crowd through one of Martelly’s dirtiest songs. The lyrics are unprintable.
“I’m 100 percent for Manigat,” said Claude Etienne, a teacher. “If she was here, you might see a few people, not thousands. But that’s because there’s more bad people than good people.”
But Etienne too sang along, then watched as a man dressed as a woman launched into a fierce dance routine. Although he said he believed Martelly followers were immoral, he had no qualms about enjoying the show.
“I’m just here to relax, have a few beers, smoke some cigarettes, and then go home,” he said.
The earthquake delayed the election cycle in Haiti, so no candidate has ever had the chance to campaign at carnival time. It would seem a natural fit for Martelly, up against a bookier and less hip rival in 70-year-old Manigat.
Throughout his campaign, Martelly has leaned on his celebrity to draw crowds. Some are curious, some hopeful he’ll sing.
Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born international hip-hop star, recently endorsed Martelly and was spotted with the candidate this weekend in Jacmel.
Music, especially compas, is a vital component of Haitian life. Weddings, funerals, political rallies and street corners are all infused with its rhythm and melody.
Natalie, 19, again in pink, was not offended by Martelly’s lyrics.
“They’re about things that happen in life,” she said. “He’s lived through it; he’s not associating himself with it. At least, not anymore.”
Martelly seized the carnival celebrations as a campaign event but downplayed his own identity as a musician.
As he took the stage on Saturday, he posed for photos and spent a few minutes playing along with the band on a set of bongo drums.
He sang a few bars but left most of the singing to others, and, as if to counter his wild boy reputation, his wife and kids were in tow.
Fans who came expecting a performance of a different kind were disappointed.
“I’m going to head downtown and see if I can still catch some music,” said one voter, Wilson Charles.