Montreal-born/Paris-dwelling singer-songwriter Mélissa Laveaux has found a musical home in the traditional sounds of her ancestral Haiti.
Despite what the adage says, you can go home again, but each time you’ll experience home with fresh eyes and new perspectives. Home is only ever static in our memories; the physical place you associate with the idea is evolving right along with the rest of the world. Haiti may not be the land in which she was born, but Montreal-born singer-songwriter Mélissa Laveaux has found a musical home in the traditional sounds of her ancestral island. Radyo Siwèl is informed by Laveaux’s research into Haitian history of the American occupation in the early 1900s and an immersion in the island’s traditional folk and Vodou sounds and flavoured with contemporary sensibilities like hip-hop, indie rock, and soul. In essence, Radyo Siwèl is a trip back home that embraces both the present and past and suggests a distinctive future for Haitian-influenced pop music.
Like many of Radyo Siwèl’s twelve tracks, opener “Lè Ma Monte Chwal Mwen” reworks a traditional Vodou folk song Laveaux first heard performed by Haitian singer and activist Martha Jean-Claude, who would go on to be imprisoned for her militancy and later exiled to Cuba. While Laveaux has said that a literal translation of the song title means when I’m riding my horse, the subtext touches on spiritual possession in Vodou ceremony, where the possessed is considered the horse and the spirit is riding them. “Lè Ma Monte Chwal Mwen” beautifully blurs the lines between who or what is possessing who or what: Is Jean-Claude entering Laveaux to inform her interpretation and performance? Or is Laveaux enchanting the song’s loose, island shuffle with sensual urban and hip-hop overtones? Or is all of that conspiring together to enthrall, engage, and seduce all those who hear it?
As impressive and hypnotic as stand-out tracks “Kouzen”, “Nibo”, and “Tolalito” are, it’s Laveaux’s take on “Twa Fey”, another traditional vodou anthem, that best captures her spiritual and artistic journey on Radyo Siwel. Like “Lè Ma Monte Chwal Mwen”, “Twa Fey” gets its potency from the juxtaposition of its literal and figurative translation. “Twa Fey” means “three leaves,” referring to the basic herbs and medicines of Vodou culture, but the song’s lyrics spin an interwoven web that references forgetting and remembrance, gathering and losing, finding roots and pulling up stakes. In its frenetic rhythm and Laveaux’s intoxicating voice, “Twa Fey” is presented to the spirits as a peace offering, a pean to the past, and a reminder to future generations that the history and story of the place you call home goes deeper than the layer of topsoil on which you’re standing. To honour, to understand, and to recognize the generations that came before, you need to scratch deep below the surface and find the embedded roots that anchor us to wherever we call home.