On a recent Tuesday Lower Sproul Plaza teemed with grade school children wearing Mardi Gras beads, buzzing, twirling and blinking in the sunlight after a Cal Performances matinee SchoolTime concert by Haitian star Emeline Michel. Inside of Zellerbach, Michel seemed equally energized after the show, a preview of the music she’ll be performing 8 p.m. Saturday as part of globalFEST: Creole Carnival, a Cal Performances triple bill with the great Rio samba band Casuarina and Jamaican guitar master Brushy One String.
“The kids don’t hold anything back,” says Michel, who last performed in the Bay Area at Stern Grove in 2007, opening for Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective. “These are some of the most fun events that I do.”
Often described as the Joni Mitchell of Haiti, Michel is a singer/songwriter, dancer, producer and activist who has come to embody her homeland’s vital culture and resilient spirit. Combining folkloric Haitian rhythms and contemporary styles like topical compas and celebratory rara with jazz, samba and bossa nova, she’s a captivating performer who divides her time between Port Au Prince and New York City (when she’s not touring internationally).
One reason why Michel connects so powerfully with the junior set is that she wasn’t much older when she started performing in Haiti. Singing gospel in her father’s Baptist church as a child, she turned to music to express herself and started writing her own material in her mid-teens. While her parents wanted her to keep her distance from traditional music and dance forms associated with Voodoo, she sought out teachers and immersed herself in African-derived culture transmitted from the era of slavery and revolution. Her first song captured the fragility of her homeland by comparing Haiti to a porcelain plate, a tune that put her on the nation’s musical map.
Two months after entering the song in a national radio contest, “I turned on the radio and heard myself,” she says. “I was 15, and that was my big starting point. At first it was more about having fun. My friends would ask me to sing and dance for them and it was so much joy to experience dancing. My father was always saying you’ve got to give me your diploma before you do something else. You cannot be hanging out with the guys. All kinds of limitations.”
She proved that she could make her way as an artist when she produced her own concert at the Rex Theatre and drew a sold-out house with more than 1,500 people. “That’s when I completely dived into making music,” she said.
Another major step came when she was one of two young musicians in Haiti to earn a scholarship to the Detroit Jazz Institute in 1985. The first member of her family to leave the country, she honed her English, studied jazz and got to watch American masters working up close like Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder. She fell in love with jazz, and ended up spending more than a year in the US. By the time she returned to Haiti the country was in the midst of a major transition as traditional cultural forms started emerging from the underground when dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled the country after a coup. Inspired to experiment by the Haitian rock band Boukman Eksperyans, Michel began crafting her own sound. Singing in Creole, French and English, she’s forged an international web of musical connections running from Montreal and Paris to New York, Burkina Faso and Benin, while always maintaining intimate ties to her troubled homeland, where music continues to play a vanguard role in expressing the frustration over political stasis.
“Music has always been a vehicle for change and protest and it’s not changing,” she said. “Three times the election been postponed. There’s the same rage, and a lot of great musicians. There’s a huge influence with rap and spoken word, which is very interesting because there’s a lot to say.”
After a decade of touring with both jazz stars and singer/songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Merchant, powerhouse New York drummer Allison Miller decided to focus on her own band Boom Tic Boom. She’s celebrating the release of her beautiful new album, Otis Was a Polar Bear, Saturday at Freight & Salvage. Recorded at Fantasy Studios and co-produced by Berkeley’s Hans Wendl, the album features an all-star cast with violinist Jenny Scheinman, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and pianist Myra Melford and clarinetist Ben Goldberg (Berkeleyans who recently released a stellar duo project Dialogue).
Kuckaw! a new Oakland instrumental funk band, celebrates the release of an impressive debut album Friday at the Starry Plough with fellow funksters Sweet Plot. The horn-laden six-piece band features a veteran cast of players who have been involved with Albino! – Heavy Heavy Afrobeat, Dynamic, Jazz Mafia, Ernest Ranglin, and Soji & The Afrobeat Band.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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