Emeline Michel could easily be identified by her robust laugh. It’s one signaling a voice to be heard above the crowd, a view of the world as absurd yet knowable, an incurable romantic, and unaffected womanliness. There’s one broad stroke in the identikit not as easily discernable from that defining laugh, though: it’s the one that traces her Haitian essence.
With a luscious voice of many moods, Michel sings “chanson creole,” a term she may have coined for a popular genre, approximately defined as a blending of French romantic and topical songs with traditional Afro-Antillean rhythms. She refers to her voice as her gift, not boastfully, but gratefully.
It wasn’t always that she knew she’d sing for her supper. She once observed that Haitian women face many obstacles to achieving acceptance as artistes. Music has always been dominated by male soloists and boy bands, and women are discouraged from competing; additionally, singing professionally is often seen as tawdry in Haiti, something women from “good families” are steered away from. She said at the time, piquantly, “Women have to really fight to gain respect and their place in music.”
The die was cast, however, not too many years back. She was in the studio one morning recording when she realized it had been nearly 24 hours since she’d moved from that spot. The time had flown and she was high on over-exhaustion and the juices of creation. “That’s when,” she confesses, “I started realizing this was my mission. I realized that I could always change careers, but this is what I’m naturally born for.”
Michel adds to her stellar voice the gift of composing and arranging, and dance. Songs come to her, often beyond mere melody and text, but in vivid filmic images waiting to be transposed into music. Tunes may come anywhere, anytime, often inspired by mundane happenings that she perceives the profundity in. When they come, since she’s not well-trained in notation, she merely calls home and scats the tune into her answering machine to await elaboration when she returns home.
Just before we met, she’d had a phone conversation with her mother who lamented the plight of the world, in particular the tragic events of the moment in Haiti. (We met shortly after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile, and the country was once again on the brink of anarchy.) Emeline wrote “La Joie” (joy) for her latest CD, following that conversation, moved when her mother said that all she wanted now was “some food on my table, strength, and aside from that…joy.”
Michel’s dancing is like the bright taffeta ribbon that completes and makes that much more appealing the gift. It is integral