Five years after the Haiti earthquake: protests, voodoo and rock & roll

Everyone has seen the photos and videos about the devastation following the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Although it’s the fifth anniversary of the disaster, I’m not going to tell you about that. I set out to find a different side of Haiti.

My first stop was a voodoo rock party at the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince, where I met Richard Morse, the hotel owner and the leader of a voodoo rock band called RAM (his initials), at the bar.

“This is what we do. We make music, we make people dance, we make people drink, eat, no matter what,” he told me. “If there’s demonstrations during the day, at night we play. If there’s chaos during the day, at night we play. We just play whenever, all the time.”

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And play they did. The 19th century hotel — which has had guests ranging from author Graham Greene to Jimmy Buffett and Susan Sarandon — got packed. A young crowd danced the night away to the band’s mix of voodoo chants and Haitian rhythms, combined with electric guitars and Rara horns.

Dancing at the Oloffson Hotel. Credit: Evelyn Baker

I tried to imagine a place so vivid ravaged by an earthquake that took the lives of 300,000 people. Richard recounts how he tried to find his kids and found himself hugging his television. He remembers that has been the only time they’ve stopped playing at the Oloffson. They went into shock.

“After the earthquake, I felt like the only way I could help was to help get someone elected and then just help move the country forward,” he tells me. “It seemed like the only thing to do. And I got disillusioned.”

Morse is Haitian-American. He’s a baby boomer who grew up in Connecticut and has been living in Haiti for half his life. He knows firsthand about the ongoing protests because Haitian President Michel Martelly is his cousin. He worked in his administration and then quit, disgusted at the corruption he claims to have encountered.

“People get into government just to make money,” he said. “I couldn’t be a part of that, so I left.”

Like Morse, people in the streets are also disillusioned. There have been public demonstrations since December of last year. The protests have been constant during my stay here. People are fed up with government dysfunction and long-delayed elections for Parliament. If an agreement isn’t reached by Monday night, Haiti could be left without a functioning government.

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Protests in the streets. Credit: Evelyn Baker

Unlike any other demonstrations I’ve covered around the world, protests in Haiti begin with a voodoo ritual. Yes, since this island was a French slave colony, African traditions are ingrained in everyday life. Especially politics.

People danced around a bonfire with maracas and plant leaves before the rally started. Several opposition factions joined the ceremony. The crowd took over the streets.

“Aba Martelly!!,” (Leave Martelly!!) a thousand protesters chanted as they burned tires in Bel Air, a poor neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. The police tried to quell the protests with riot gear.

I ask Richard about Haiti’s political future.

“The anniversary of the earthquake is here and because there has been no election, the Parliament is supposed to be eliminated,” he explains. “The president will be ruling by decree. Some people call that a dictatorship.”

My interview with Richard Morse. Credit: Evelyn Baker

But whatever happens, Morse tells me he’ll keep playing.

“At a certain point, you’ve just got to move on,” he said. “So we started performing again, and people started coming again. Yeah.”

After having spent almost a week here, the earthquake became an inevitable topic of discussion. Years later, 85,000 people are still living in tents. Corruption still abounds.

But there is hope, amid the protests and poverty. There is hope in people protesting because they’re fed up with the political class. There is hope in the music you hear in the streets from emerging artists, hope in the small business owners who put their products out every day in the blazing sun. And yes, hope in the rock parties Richard Morse hosts every Thursday night.

We just have to dare to look at Haiti differently.