Laura Snapes (The Guardian) writes about the many creative projects that Mélissa Laveaux is producing, including her forthcoming (March 23) album, Radyo Siwèl. Snapes says, “The Canadian singer’s striking new album is themed around the US occupation of her parents’ homeland – but is a lilting, joyful record about omens, civil treachery and sexuality,” an album that combines Haitian kompa guitar with calypso and soca.
On a dull January afternoon, Mélissa Laveaux arrives at her record label’s Paris office apologising for her lateness. Disorganisation is, she says, a lifelong affliction. But the 33-year-old is in the middle of so many self-directed projects that it’s hard to take her claims too seriously. It takes a polymath to simultaneously mastermind a play about Haitian spirits, a multimedia project about a 19th-century sculptor, and an album about the American occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century.
The album is Radyo Siwèl, Laveaux’s third: a lilting, burnished, joyful full-band collection that combines Haitian kompa guitar with calypso and soca, courtesy of Toronto-based Trinidadian guitarist Drew Gonsalves.
Laveaux moved to France 10 years ago when Paris-based label No Format offered to release her music. Born to Haitian parents in Ottawa, she describes her childhood as traditional, though with one missing aspect – her parents wanted Laveaux and her sister to assimilate and speak perfect English and French, so refused to teach them Creole. “All the cool Haitian kids spoke Creole. It felt like a sorority we didn’t have access to,” says Laveaux. “It felt like something was missing.”
Immersion in Creole culture was one of the prompts to make this album. The other was a childhood love that Laveaux’s parents did foster, of the Haitian singer and activist Martha Jean-Claude. Laveaux first heard her aged six, and started playing her songs after she got her first guitar following her first trip to Haiti, aged 12. “When I moved to Paris, one of the artists that still carried me was Martha Jean-Claude,” she says. An invitation to perform her songs at a benefit for the 2010 Haitian earthquake didn’t pan out, but it did turn into an obsessive research project.
[. . .] She decided to make her second trip to Haiti, researching at institutions including the Centre d’Art, still in a state of disrepair following the earthquake. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be claimed by other Haitians, but people kept thinking I was somebody’s daughter, and urging me to speak Creole. I felt claimed,” she says. She took pride in finding that her music had been bootlegged, distributed, and stored in the National Archives.
Laveaux returned to Paris overwhelmed with books and CDs of traditional songs: voudou spirituals such as Legba Na Konsole, and folk songs, including Kouzen, which Jean-Claude recorded during her exile in Cuba. She decided to parse the “chaos”, as she calls it, by taking inspiration from sci-fi and refashioning her own narrative of the US occupation from the songs she found, referencing omens, civil treachery and voudou’s exuberant, complex depiction of sexuality, which the occupiers had tried to suppress. The album contains one track of her own, Jolibwa, about the population protesting the imprisonment of journalist Joseph Jolibois by dancing outside his cell (Jolibois died in jail in 1936). She was pleased by recent footage from New York that saw a group of Haitians protesting outside Trump Tower by dancing in the streets after news emerged that the President had allegedly called Haiti a “shithole”.
Despite its heavy historical themes, Radyo Siwèl is a beautifully light record. [. . .]