performing as part of Harbourfront
Centre’s ISLAND SOUL FEstival
at the Norigen Stage (235 Queen’s Quay
West), Saturday (August 4), 9:30 pm. Free.
416-973-3000. Rating: NNNNN
creole soul queen emeline mi-chel has got it goin’ on. She’s a charismatic performer who moves with lissome elegance and puts across socially conscious songs with a transfixing sensuality. That Michel could also be mistaken for a supermodel wasn’t considered a drawback when Sony offered the Montreal-based Haitian scorcher a lucrative recording contract.
It’s called a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it proved to be exactly that. Instead of simply presenting Michel as is, they foolishly tried turning her into another Lauryn Hill.
Many aspiring artists would gladly have taken the $350,000 on the table and proceeded with the make-over. But Michel isn’t easily manipulated. And besides, she’s too smart, too strong and far too talented to play second string.
“The record label had a certain idea of how I should sound,” explains Michel from a tour stop in New York. “They brought in Wyclef Jean and wanted me to sing over hiphop beats. Unfortunately, hiphop is not the essence of my music. So I hired a lawyer and got myself out of the contract.”
It was a troubling time for Michel, but she now sees it as a positive experience that inspired a complete reassessment of who she was and what she needed to say with her music.
Eventually, she returned to Haiti, rented a house by the water and began work on what would become her defining musical statement. “All I did for two months was write, eat lobsters and write some more,” recalls Michel. “It was just soooo soothing. I think that vibe comes through on the album.”
There’s a wonderful, sun-soaked breeziness to the resulting Cordes Et Ame (Production Cheval de Feu) disc that’s unmistakably Caribbean.
Employing primarily acoustic instruments, the rhythmically rich songs of Cordes Et Ame blend elements of Haitian roots rara with Bahian samba and the son of Santiago de Cuba while Michel scats, chants and soars effortlessly over top.
She can stretch a phrase with the seductive sophistication of Cassandra Wilson, then float on a conga slap with the free-spirited flow of a Crucian cariso charmer. It’s little wonder that Cordes Et Ame outsold all the compas contenders in Haiti last year.
Michel not only took Haiti’s album- of-the-year honours, but also earned bragging rights as best producer. Talk about vindication.
“People told me I’d never get anywhere unless I sang in English. As a young girl who grew up strumming a guitar under a mango tree I had a dream of being on MTV like everyone else, so I believed them. A record company even sent me to NYU for an accent correction course, but it’s a lot of work to get the Creole out of me.”
For Michel, seeing the warm reception Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora received in the U.S. inspired a rethink. “Like people all over the world, I love Cesaria’s voice. Nobody seems to mind that she doesn’t sing in English.
“Your language is part of your identity. If you try to be something you’re not, people won’t feel you. They’ll know you’re faking it. So what people get is just me, raw and natural.”
Perhaps a bit too raw for some. Michel isn’t thrilled with the fact that comments about her stunning appearance often feature more prominently in reviews than discussions of her songs. Admittedly, though, she hasn’t done much to play down the whole island goddess image.
“My early videos probably didn’t help,” she allows with a devilish laugh. “I was much wilder in my youth, and I wouldn’t do anything halfway.
“But I’m not the kind of person who is obsessed with how I look. I’m not interested in using sex to sell my music, and I’ve tried to rid myself of those superficial perceptions. Yet I’m not going to wear a sack to hide my femininity. I’m happy with the way God made me, I just don’t want my appearance to be seen as being central to my work.”
What remains the prime focus of Michel’s music is Haiti. In spite of the political upheaval and having been robbed at gunpoint in Port-au-Prince, her love for her home country is unwavering.
She may live happily in Montreal, but she metaphorically distinguishes between the two places in the chorus of Fo m Ale (Got To Go): Canada is her stepmother while Haiti is her real mother.
“Oh, yes,” she says, drawing a breath while formulating a diplomatic response. “When I sing the words, “bélmé pa manman’m fó m al nan peyan m,’ I’m saying that even if I’m not living in Haiti, it’s still in my blood. I lived there until I was 21. As much as I love Canada and the people, my roots run deep in Haiti.
“Whenever there is a news story about Haiti, it’s always about misery. For me, it’s revolting to turn on the Discovery channel and see another sensationalized report on zombification, which only makes people frightened of voudou culture.
“You never hear about the great creative arts emerging from Haiti. What about the painting? The music? I’m trying to present that hidden side.”
KINGDOM OF SOCA FAMILY featuring Dr. Jay De Soca Prince, E-Man, Chinese Laundry and more, Friday, Palais Royale. www.kos.com
SOCA FEST 2001 featuring Traffik, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, Krossfyah, David Rudder and more, Friday through Sunday, the Docks. 416-335-5292.
ISLAND SOUL featuring Emeline Michel, Ronnie McIntosh, Bunji Garlin, Roy Cape and more, Friday to Monday, Harbourfront Centre. 416-973-3000.
MAXWELL Saturday (6:15 pm), Phoenix. 416-870-8000.
REGGAEBANA featuring Half Pint, Chester Miller, Culture and more, Saturday and Sunday, Opera House. 905-452-1911.
RHYTHMS OF AFRICA featuring Diblo Dibala, Mighty Sparrow, Lizzy Mahashe, Calypso Rose and more, Saturday, Lamport Stadium. 416-465-4884.
FOXY BROWN Sunday, Guvernment. 416-870-8000.
Going to the parade is all well and good, but Caribana is really about the parties, concerts and throwdowns that run all weekend long, from the pre-parties to the las’ lap early Monday morning.
the stacks of flyers piled up in record
stores and roti shops, this year is a
particularly hectic one, with stars like Roy
Cape, David Rudder, Mighty Sparrow and
Charlies Roots double-, triple- and even
quadruple-booked some nights.
The music on offer ranges from soca and
calypso to dancehall, roots reggae,
straight-up hiphop and even R&B.
Plan to arrive early and stay late, and
dress to impress.
Here’s some of the best of the fest.
KINGDOM OF SOCA FAMILY featuring
Dr. Jay De Soca Prince, E-Man, Chinese
Laundry and more, Friday, Palais Royale.
SOCA FEST 2001 featuring Traffik, Byron
Lee & the Dragonaires, Krossfyah, David
Rudder and more, Friday through Sunday,
the Docks. 416-335-5292.
ISLAND SOUL featuring Emeline Michel,
Ronnie McIntosh, Bunji Garlin, Roy Cape
and more, Friday to Monday, Harbourfront
MAXWELL Saturday (6:15 pm), Phoenix.
REGGAEBANA featuring Half Pint,
Chester Miller, Culture and more,
Saturday and Sunday, Opera House.
RHYTHMS OF AFRICA featuring Diblo
Dibala, Mighty Sparrow, Lizzy Mahashe,
Calypso Rose and more, Saturday,
Lamport Stadium. 416-465-4884.
FOXY BROWN Sunday, Guvernment.