mélissa laveaux is ready for resistance
With two albums under her belt, Mélissa Laveaux is digging even deeper for her third by exploring her Haitian strain and weaving it into her sonic fabric. The Canadian singer-songwriter brings it home with Radyo Siwèl, a collection of playful songs of resistance that captures both the Haitian joie de vivre and agitation in the time of U.S. occupation. Get your frequency right and turn the volume up: this is the sound of the past preserved for the future.
words by: Fajar Zakhri
When Mélissa Laveaux set foot in Haiti in 2016, it was only the second time in her life that she had done so in the land of her ancestors. The only difference was, this time around, she was on a mission to trace her roots and honor her forebears. Ensconced in the island's rich cultural heritage, particularly the songs of resistance conceived during the time of the American occupation between 1915 and 1934, the musician wound up taking these songs on the road a year later for the Radyo Siwèl tour. The following year, the songs are now housed in a proper body of work, still under that title. "In Haiti, African deities come to visit those who call for them. To cross the Atlantic, these deities go through the underground roots of the great trees that grow on both sides of the ocean; and it's these roots that grow within me," she muses.
Born and raised in both the English and French-speaking parts of Canada, Laveaux's upbringing was somehow uprooted from the creole language and the vodou practice that lay the foundation of the Haitian culture, as she only learned the unique expressions and idioms of Haitian Creole via her mother's phone conversations with friends and family members. "Although my parents would speak in creole to their children, we would have to respond in French. They didn't want us to learn the language out of fear that we would not be assimilated," she recalls. Taking on these well-worn numbers might just be her way or reclaiming the cultural past she was deprived of, while recontextualizing them for the present. It goes without saying that amplifying her creoleness serves as an act of resistance in the age of rising extremism and blatant xenophobia, especially as a black, immigrant, queer woman. This is perhaps why she chose to cover "Nan Fon Bwa", the 1915 folk song originally performed by Haitian-American composer Frantz Casséus. An homage to the richness and hope of youth, Laveaux interprets the song as an anthem of "if I can't dance, it's not my revolution."
"I definitely think that music can build a momentum for change," she says. "I think music can bring hope. Music is also there to keep note of history. There's something about musicians and artists being there to be the cultural historians and making sure that people don't forget what's happening." Another noted singer and activist, Martha Jean-Claude, also informed the album's upbeat and buoyant yet defiant vibe. "Growing up I really owned listening to her because it was mine and something other children didn't have, they had their dolls and I had this music," she reminisces.
Despite currently living the Parisian life, Laveaux concludes that Haiti will always be her native country, "in every sense of term: that's where my parents and ancestors grew up and it shaped the way I was raised." Radyo Siwèl drives this point further home, not unlike how it brought her there in the first place. And now the whole world gets to tune in to its frequency.
Radyo Siwèl is out now via No Format!. All photos c/o Mélissa Laveaux.