A Conversation with Mimi Barthélémy

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Here is an interview by Vanessa Fara (first published on 27 November 2012 in La Terrasse #204) with the late Haitian performer Mimi Barthélémy, in which she explains how Haiti was her life-long cause. Fara describes storyteller, actress, and singer Mimi Barthélémy as a scholarly and popular artist, a advocate of the relationship between memory and oral transmission in Haiti. Here is the result of Fara’s “meeting with a woman of words, all smiles and creative energy.” [Barthélémy will be honored by Haiti Cultural Exchange on August 24 in New York City. See Haiti Cultural Exchange Presents a Tribute to Mimi Barthélémy; also see Mimi Barthélémy (1939-2013).]

What is the history of Kouté Chanté?   A grandmother, who identifies each person or object with a song, returns to her country in search of a long forgotten song … This woman, a little nutty and displaced, lands on a beach in southern Haiti on the day of the Carnival, a place from her childhood. She meets a fisherman trying to make a Goudou-Goudou mask, the mask of the earthquake. They begin to play music together. The fisherman finds it hard to believe that this woman is Haitian, and a special relationship develops between them—a mix of conflict and complicity. And when the Carnival plays, snippets of the song come back to her, the song of a child she had lost…

The Carnival is the third character…   In resonance with the Carnival, there will be a lot of instruments on stage and big paper mâché heads, handled by the fisherman—played by Yacouba Sawadogo from the compagnie Les Grandes Personnes company. Carnival is the most profound speech of a people—this is why it has not become commercial. Carnival in Jacmel goes beyond imagination, with paper mâché figures of extraordinary vividness, mocking justice and corrupt figures… In Jacmel, we sing, we have fun, we let off steam! It is a popular expression, subversive and creative, which helps establish this woman’s reconciliation with her roots. [. . .]

The issue of diaspora, with its pain and its wealth, is at the center of the show:  The grandmother is in constant contact with her children and grandchildren who stayed in Europe, via the Internet, with sometimes comic vagaries of understanding. As she enters the Carnival, the grandmother blends into the country she left long ago. She faces several problems: [reconciling] the actual country and that of memory, but also the people of this land and those who live abroad.

Does this show constitute a work of transmission?   I love to speak about Haiti, through play, through storytelling and music. I am a vehicle and a part of Haitian culture, although living in France … I am part of the songs from my Dis-moi des chansons d’Haïti and I put my personal memories into this show. I want to broaden awareness of Haitian culture in France; I want to say that Haiti exists, that its destiny is linked to France, although this does not seem to be a case of mutual loyalty. The image of Haiti has been erased from [the landscape of] French education, although it was the richest colony, Toussaint Louverture was French, and the struggle against Napoleon was a historic event! I hammer on Haiti; it is my cause. I know that to forget is normal, but not irreparable…

Now that the earthquake has razed everything to the ground, it’s our responsibility to go fishing in History, to pull in the nets so that everything will come back to us. [A nous d’aller à la pêche de l’Histoire, de tirer les filets pour que tout nous revienne.]

For original piece (in French), see http://www.journal-laterrasse.fr/focus/entretien-mimi-barthelemy-je-martele-haiti-cest-ma-cause/

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