RAM: Rhythms from the Crossroads

"The musicians come from the masses, and I will always choose to defend the masses because they're the ones that got me what I got. They're the ones that showed me how this whole thing rolls, so I'm with them."

Haiti has long served as a crossroads of the Americas. Before the Haitian Revolution and since, it has been a place where threads come together. Richard A. Morse, of the Haitian spiritual band RAM, exemplifies this better than most. Born in Puerto Rico to a Haitian performing artist mother and a scholarly New Englander father, Morse grew up in Connecticut far away from the world his music speaks to now. But his Haitian lineage is strong—from politicians to musicians, his family has always been influential on the island—and he figures he didn’t have much choice but to get pulled back. He started RAM in 1990, and his life has been in Haiti ever since.

RAM is a band known throughout Haiti and its diaspora as its own kind of crossroads. Bringing together traditional rhythms from all over Haiti with a healthy dose of punk rock, their music is inimitable and unforgettable. Since the days of the Raoul Cédras military dictatorship in the early ‘90s, RAM has performed on Thursday nights in the historic Hotel Oloffson, a palatial Port-au-Prince hotel where their performances brought together travelers and Haitians from every class. Now, as violence rocks the streets of Port-au-Prince, they have decamped to New Orleans, where Fritai, Basin Street’s beloved Haitian restaurant, stepped in as their new Thursday night spot.

For Haiti’s international network of allies and admirers, it is dispiriting to watch the current political turbulence unfold. But for the contingent living in New Orleans, RAM’s Carnival residency is a precious silver lining. Always a prominent voice in Haitian Kanaval, this year the RAM polyrhythms will be vibrating with a whole new Mardi Gras frequency. New Orleanian revelers are fortunate enough to have front row seats to the alchemical result.

So what brings you to New Orleans, of all the many places you have fans?

Richard A. Morse: In essence we are kind of stuck here. You know, they don’t want us out there playing, so we can’t make a living in Haiti, which is what we’ve been doing. My daughter married a New Orleanian that we met in Haiti, and they have a house in the Lower Ninth Ward where we’ve been staying.

How has it been so far?

It’s different. Usually we’re performing for Haitians—we’re a Haitian band. Here no one understands the words we’re saying. But there are still a lot of similarities. Haiti is part of New Orleans—what we do and who we are is part of the fabric of New Orleans. I don’t feel like that’s the case in Miami—Miami is this other thing, and there happens to be a lot of Haitians. Same with Brooklyn. Here you see the words Creole, voodoo—it’s part of the language.

How did RAM get its start?

I like to say that the band was formed in 1791. That’s when Haiti decided to become Haiti, and if it hadn’t, what we do wouldn’t exist. These rhythms, these songs—they wouldn’t exist. That revolution is what permitted us to have our band. It was a conscious moment. I came to Haiti when I was 28—that’s when I went all in. That’s when I went there, moved there, brought my clothes there, and learned Creole. It took me five years after that to get the band together. Meeting Lunise [Morse’s wife and co-lead singer] helped. She was a folkloric dancer and she had a drum line, so we took the drummers and turned them into RAM. She brings the spirituality into it, and communicates with the people with dance. They see Haiti in her, the way she moves to the rhythm of the drums.

What kind of reception did the band get once you got together?

We played for two years at the Hotel Oloffson, and no one showed up.

What changed? 

Well, people started showing up.

Willy Dezor. Photo by Steven Hatley

They sure did! And still do—like one of your drummers told me in front of Fritai, RAM is a “bon enstitisyon”—a good institution.

Right. We just recorded a Carnival song, which we do almost every year, and I think it’s our 30th.

How was the process of making it amidst the tumult of having to relocate?

We were conscious of being in New Orleans, so we laid down just like a street rara, which is like second line music without the trumpets—our melodies are from bamboo instruments. In our Carnival songs, we generally go through a lot of rhythms—Haitians are sophisticated. They get on it, you know? And I’m not saying New Orleans isn’t, but I just wanted to present something that they could say, “Oh, I get that.”

We’re definitely on a different frequency.

Or a slower pace. We’re used to one sixth. It’s harder, but you know, we live in a tenser environment. I remember we played in St. Lucia one time at the jazz festival there, and they got oil money, they grow bananas—everyone’s got health care, you know? So everyone’s just chillin’. Nothing made me feel as aggressive as a band as when we were playing in St. Lucia.

Y’all have definitely held down your scene in Port-au-Prince through some serious political turmoil. How have you navigated those waves as a band?

The musicians come from the masses, and I will always choose to defend the masses because they’re the ones that got me what I got. They’re the ones that showed me how this whole thing rolls, so I’m with them. And helping the masses helps everybody—helping two or three people on the top doesn’t help anybody. So, our songs reflect that. Our attitude reflects that. Our opinions reflect that. The people in the band reflect that.

Lunise Morse (at Cafe Istanbul). Photo by James Cullen

As the son of Emerante de Pradines and the grandson of Auguste de Pradines, you’re in a unique position, I imagine. Both are musicians who moved through all levels of society, but their music had its roots in the countryside.

Yeah, as it turns out, my family has been doing this stuff for generations. My mom had vodou albums out in the ‘50s. My grandfather was born in France, but his family had been in Haiti for centuries—before my grandfather they all did politics and law. But my grandfather had polio, and was brought to Haiti for the weather. When he was 14 and nearly paralyzed, he went to a vodou ceremony, and a healing ritual brought back his mobility. He composed a song for Ezilie, the lwa who helped him walk.

It must be strange to carry forward this rich Haitian musical legacy, but to also come from the perspective of having grown up in the United States.

My mom danced with Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham. I was raised in dance studios. I’ve been listening to vodou rhythms my entire life, since that was the music my mother sang.  But I didn’t learn Creole ‘til I was 28, so I never knew what my mom was singing, I never knew what the drums were about. I would see the word vodou with her, but it didn’t make any sense. I was more interested in the New York Yankees. That was on purpose—they brought us up as American kids. My dad was the one who always told me she was deep. I saw that when I finally learned Creole.

How did that change the dynamic?

Our conversations were very different speaking English and Creole. Being in Connecticut, New England, wherever we were [in the U.S.] the conversation never went in that direction. But once I got to Haiti and all of it was surrounding us, we would have these new conversations, as if we’d always had them. She’d tell me these dreams she had—it got into a whole different realm. I learned that she spent a couple years in the Haitian provinces learning vodou remedies, ceremonies. She was turning this stuff into choreography, and songs she would sing for her public. If I hadn’t learned Creole I wouldn’t know who my mom was.

When you talk about the vodou rhythms performed by your mother and grandfather, is that how you would describe the spiritual element of the music?

We’re playing all these ancient rhythms from West Africa and Haiti. The spirituality of what we do is hereditary, right? You can want to do it, you can not want to do it—but there are people that are chosen to continue it. And that is what we’re about. We’re singing songs that deal with the spiritual world—we’re a bridge between the ceremonial and the public. We give people access to rhythms they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Are you in this circle? Are you grooving on what we’re grooving on? Hopefully it lights a spark.

And how does the spirituality relate to the politics of the band?

Our music has good messages, it’s all positive, you know? It’s all inclusive. But in a heavy political situation everything becomes about politics. Even if you choose not to sing about politics, that becomes a political statement in itself—like you’re trying to ignore what’s going on. So it’s tricky terrain, and staying alive is a big part of it. We just keep going, and keep our respect for the masses. They’re the people who taught me the culture of the music that we do. If I had wanted to be an oligarch I wouldn’t have come to Haiti—I would have stayed in Connecticut.

In New Orleans, music is such an integral part of the Carnival experience. Would you say that’s true for Haiti as well? And what is it like performing during Haitian Kanaval?

Carnival is the time of year when most people listen to music in Haiti. I didn’t grow up in a Carnival culture, but the band did—they always wanted to put out a [Carnival] video. Carnival for me has always been very political and dangerous. We’re seen as a Carnival band—we have a lot of Carnival hits, even though we don’t perform every year—it depends on the politics. The first time we participated was in 1995, when Aristide was brought back [after the 1991 military coup which deposed him]. That year they put us on the presidential float.

In Port-au-Prince there’s all kinds of street music. There’s a whole percussion style in the streets, there’s a point of view. And when we do a Carnival song, well, we want to get the street across. A Carnival song is often four or five ceremonial songs linked together, and then we take the street elements and bring them onto the floats.

Did you ever experience Haitian Kanaval from the street level, before you made it onto the floats?

When I met my wife, she introduced me to [Kanaval]. She used to take me out and we’d go to the street things. Going through those crowds was a learning experience—there’s a way to walk with the flow, and against the flow. In Haiti Carnival moves through the streets. In Port-au-Prince they don’t necessarily get that dressed up for it, everyone’s just in it. It’s a big part of the year for a lot of people. It does get really intense. There’s thousands and thousands of people, and a certain amount of anarchy and cacophony, since everyone is playing music as loud as they can. You’re watching the police beat people up with batons—intense.

Will this be your first New Orleans Mardi Gras?

Usually when we come here for Carnival—for Krewe du Kanaval—we come for a day or two and then we leave, so this is my first time being here from start to finish. And for the first time I’m starting to see these little gigs in clubs, that neighborhood club culture, like BJ’s—we’ll be playing a set there. We’re doing the Civic Theatre too, which will be a bigger show. But it’s a whole new perspective—I don’t know what to expect.

Photo by James Cullen

Among other dates, RAM will be performing February 7th at the Hi-Ho Lounge, February 9th at Fritai, February 10th at the Civic Theatre, February 12th at BJ’s, and Cafe Istanbul and the Maple Leaf on Mardi Gras Day. For more info, check out ramhaiti.com.

Top Photo: RAM at Chickie Wah Wah. (photo by Steven Hatley)

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