Bois Caïman as a symbol of unity

by Sandie Blaise

Deeps > Representing Bois Caïman > Music and Bois Caïman > Bois Caïman as a symbol of unity

In Mizik Rasin and other types of music, the Bois Caïman ceremony is used as a symbol of resistance against the Duvalier dictatorship as it draws on the revolutionary meaning of the original ceremony held by slaves on August 14, 1791 who launched revolt against their oppressors afterwards. [see the page on Bois Caïman as a symbol of resistance to read more on this topic]. Mentioning Bois Caïman in music also refers to the event that united the slaves under the same banner – “libète ou lanmò” (“Liberty or death”) – and marked the first step towards liberty of a unified people fighting the same enemy, the French army as colonizers. As a result, Haiti became the first black independent nation in the world, but also the only successful slave revolt that opened the way for slave emancipation in the Caribbean. It represents the union of slaves belonging to different tribes and speaking different languages coming together as one not to fight for their return to Africa, but for their freedom and independence. Therefore, the Bois Caïman ceremony is often used as a symbol of unity of the Haitian people as a whole throughout the centuries, but also as a symbol of a broader unity within the Black Atlantic world by including the neighboring Caribbean islands and Africa.

 

The role of Haitian Creole

The slaves brought to Saint-Domingue were from different parts of West Africa and did not belong to the same tribes nor did they speak the same language. Having roots in both French and West-African languages,[1. Michel DeGraff,  “Language barrier: Creole is the language of Haiti, and the education system needs to reflect that,” Boston Globe, June 16, 2010. See also “Baryè lang ann Ayiti: Kreyòl se lang peyi a; se pou sa fòk lekòl fèt an Kreyòl,” Le Nouvelliste, August 20, 2010.] Creole became the common language of slaves, and later Haitians. One of the symbols of unity can be found in the choice of language used in mizik rasin and songs mentioning the ceremony. Jayaram writes that “after opposing the regime, the task in front of the people then became to reassert what it meant to be Haitian, or a revalorization of being Haitian. To this extent, musician Michel Dejean commented that a need was created for good (meaning “traditional”) Haitian music.”[2. Kiran Jayaram, “The Politics of Culture in the Mouvman Rasin in Haiti,” Occasional Papers in Haitian Studies, no. 29, Bryant C. Freeman, ed. Institute of Haitian Studies, University of Kansas, 2004, p.21] Creole, as the only language that all Haitians speak, and the language that slaves also spoke back in the late 18th century when the Revolution started, was naturally chosen as the language embodying unity. It is important to notice that, even though 90% of Haitians do not speak French, it was not until 1979 that Haitian Creole was recognized as one of the two official languages in Haiti. Up till then, French was the only official language and was used at school as the language of instruction even though it wasn’t the native language of the children.[3. DeGraffRunning “contrary to the interests of the ruling classes and the bourgeoisie,”[3. Jayaram, p.34, quoting “Veritab mizik rasin nan se yon zouti chanjman!” Bon Nouvèl, 1994, p. 10-14.] mizik rasin and other songs developed out of the idea that “alone we are weak, together we are strong” [4. Andrée W. Raymond, Nap chanté coopérative sou ciel d’Haïti chérie. Port-au-Prince : Imprimerie des Antilles, 1972. p.30] and promoted a message of unity and the use of Creole. 

 

Past and present as one

In this respect, not only was Creole a symbol of unity of the Haitians in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was also part of the traditional Haitian identity inherited from their ancestors who came from Africa on slave ships and united with other slaves born in Saint-Domingue to liberate the country. Coming from French and West-African languages,[5. See DeGraff.] Creole embodied unity throughout the centuries, hereby linking the past with the present. For Haitians, speaking, reading, writing and singing in Creole was part of “recaptur[ing] [their] heritage and [their] identity” in order to “liberate [themselves],” what Malcolm X had advocated for Blacks in the United States in his speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964.

On the “Lakou Mizik” website, this link between past and present clearly appears as one of the core ideas of the “Lakou Mizik” project:

The “Lakou Mizik” project will bring an older generation of musicians together with their younger counterparts to reinterpret classic Haitian folk and protest songs on the recording of a new album. Building from a base of traditional instrumentation, the songs will incorporate updated lyrics and creative production to keep the music both rooted in the past and resonant in the present.

On Bob Corbett’s email list discussing Bois Caïman, Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique wrote in 2002 that the memory of the ceremony was still very vivid in Haiti [see this page for more information on debates about Bois Caïman]. She cited a song that an elderly person knew from his grand-father: “Revni lwa yo, Sanble lwa yo, Nan Bwa Kayiman nou ye, Nou tande fizi tire Apre Bondye, Se nou sa l ki chaf la ye, Apre Bondye, Se nou chaf, Nan Bwa Kayiman a.” Beauvoir-Dominique translated it as “Bring back the spirits (lwa), Group together the spirits, We’re at the Bwa Kayiman, We hear the rifles shooting. After Bondye, It’s we the chiefs, After Bondye, It’s we the chiefs, At the Bwa Kayiman.”[6. Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, quoted in “Comparing the Legends of Bois Caïman“.]

This transmission of the Bois Caïman story within the family circle and from one generation to the next shows how lively it is. It also shows that Bois Caïman acts as a  unifying agent. As part of the musical commercial and public sphere through multiple references by various groups, but also of course, of the private sphere in being passed on from one generation to the next, Bois Caïman as a symbol of unity is still relevant in more contemporary times.

 

Musical references to Bois Caïman as a symbol of unity

In 1986, one of the most popular Haitian bands of the 1970s, “D.P. Express” (previously known as “Les Difficiles de Pétion-ville”), released a song in their tenth album called “Négriers” (or “Negriye” in Creole, which means “slave ship”). See this page (in French) for a complete discography and list of musicians. References to the ceremony and the need for unity with fellow Haitians, but also within the Caribbean and with the ancestors from Africa are in bold [or circled in red], my translation in italics).

D.P. Express – Negriye (1986)

 “Negriye” Lyrics  (in Creole)

 

Sote, sote, sote, vole, vole, vole

Nou rive

Negriye yo rive woy, debake nèg Nago ooo (x2)

The slave ships arrived and unloaded Nago people [ethnic identifier linked to the African Yoruba language group. See this page for more information]

Lannwit kou lajounen, yo fèk pran negriye

Nou pèdi tout chalè, nou sou anbakasyon

Debake n on peyi, n on peyi nou pa konn pèsonn o

 

Negriye yo rive woy, debake nèg Nago ooo (x2)

The slave ships arrived and unloaded Nago people

Solèy poko leve nou kòmanse plante

Tabak, mayi, koton, kannasik, endigo

Tout sa n pwodui, yo esplwate l

Gen nan nou yo mete siveye

They made some of us overseers

Yo bliye si se frè nou yo ye

They forgot if we were brothers

Simen baton, fòse n travay

Distributed beatings, forced us to work

Nou rele lwa ginen yo ki te ban nou chemen

We called the lwa who showed us the way – [lwa: spririts of Haitian Vodou]

Bwa Kayiman n te sèmante

Bois Caïman we took an oath

Nou te pran libète n

We took our freedom

“Woy, mache mache mache, Opa Opa Opa Opa”

 

Annou chante ansanm

Let’s sing together

Nèg o, nèg o, nèg o

M ap mande kouman nou ye

Nèg Nago, nèg Ginen, nèg Kongo

Nago people, from the Guinea Coast, from Congo

M ap mande kòman nou ye

Woy, Ayisyen se nan kondisyon sa

Hey Haitians, that’s how

Zansèt nou yo te travèse la

Our ancestors crossed the ocean

Anchennen youn sou lòt

Gen nan yo ki pa menm rive

Lè n imajine soufrans yo andire

Mizè yo pase pou ban nou tè sa a

Fò nou onore yo, venere yo tout tan gen tan

 

Yo mete yo len sou lòt

Anchennen tankou bèt sovaj

Lè yo rive, yo fè yo tonbe travay (x2)

 

Ay yo pa t ka pale

Men wi yo pa t ka rele

Yo pa t ka pale

Men wi yo pa t ka rele

Yo rete inosan

Yo pa t gen sekou

Bondye voye Dessalines, Pétion, Toussaint, Boukman

God sent Dessalines, Pétion, Toussaint, Boukman

Vin pote limyè pou yo

Vin retire yo nan yon travay ki si di oo

 

Si jodi a nou vin yon nasyon

If we are a nation today

Nou kapab chante, nou kapab danse

If we can sing and dance

Ann nou di yo mèsi pou tout sakrifis yo fè pou nou (x2)

We must thank our ancestors for all the sacrifices they made for us

 

Sa nou fè yo

« Men sa se D.P. Express, siempre, siempre, siempre, sou konpa »

« Gade ou menm vire, vire, granmoun pa jwe »

Woy, tanpri souple lese konpa sa « andar »

Woy, sere kole, ann sere kole, sere kole, se pou n sere kole (x3)

Nèg ann Ayiti, nèg Lamatinik, nan Senegal

People in Haiti, people in Martinique, in Senegal

Se pou n kenbe la, se pou n ka rive la

Se pou nou kenbe la, se pou n ka rive la x2

Se pou nou kenbe kenbe kenbe kenbe kenbe…

Vole, vole, vole, vole, lougawou vole,

M anraje, mezanmi, me bon bagay wi

 

Tanpri souple

Ay pou n te pran lendepandans sa pa fèt yon sèl jou

Taking our independence didn’t happen overnight

Anpil san te koule pou n te ka rive la

A lot of blood was shed for us to get here

Sonnen ason an,

Rele papa Legba ouvè baryè pou nou

Li te reponn nou mmmmmm

 

Si jodi a nou vin yon nasyon

If we are a nation today

Nou kapab chante, nou kapab danse

If we can sing and dance

Ann nou di yo mèsi pou tout sakrifis yo te fè nou

We must thank our ancestors for all the sacrifices they made for us

Ay yo te sèmante pou yo pa rete ak moun

Yo te lite lite pou n te soti nan chenn sa

Si jodi a ni mwen ni ou nou pa anchennen

Fò n di zansèt nou yo mèsi

We must thank our ancestors

Mèsiiii

Vole, vole

 

Men sa se “D.P. Express”

Sere kole, sere kole, sere kole, sere kole

Nèg ann Ayiti, nèg Lagwadeloup, nan Lamatinik, Lagiyan, nan Senegal,

People in Haiti, people in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana, Senegal

Pou nou kenbe la, pou n ka rive la

Se pou nou kenbe la, se pou n ka rive la (x2)

Kole kole kole kole kole kole kole…

 

Fò nou chante ansanm

We must sing together

Nèg o, nèg o

M ap mande kouman nou ye

Nèg Nago, nèg Ginen, nèg Kongo

Nago people, people from the Guinea Coast, from Congo

Ounsi kanso mwen ki pral akouche

Bondye bon, Bondye va gade l

 

Want to cite this page?

“Bois Caïman as a Symbol of Unity,” Written by Sandie Blaise (2014), Representing Bois Caïman, The Black Atlantic Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/ (accessed on (date)). – See more at: http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/sample-page/storytelling-and-representation-of-bois-caiman/music-and-bois-caiman/symbol-of-unity/

 

 

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