Mélissa Laveaux is a singer, songwriter and guitarist. On her recently released album Radyo Siwèl, Mélissa is joined by guitarist and cuatro player Drew Gonsalves and French production duo, A.L.B.E.R.T.
Mélissa’s music is a modern indie-rock re-interpretation of traditional Haitian folk music, Vodou anthems and phrases she found in old songbooks. Sinuous guitar lines are propelled by infectious, complex rhythms and Mélissa’s distinctive, and highly impressive, vocals.
Born in Canada, to Haitian parents (more on that later), Mélissa is now based out of Paris. The French capital, Paris is home to 2.2 million people, making it the ninth most populous city in Europe. A city since the third century CE, Paris has been the capital of France, on-and-off since around 900 CE. Synonymous with art, literature and music, Paris could make a pretty good claim to being the cultural capital of the world. Recent musical exports making waves have included Halo Maud, The Dove & The Wolf and Burning Peacocks.
Mélissa was just twenty-one when she released her debut album, Camphor & Copper on the independent label, Malleable Records, back in 2006. A Lagardère Talent bursary and a remastering later, and the record was released three years after on her current home, Nø Førmat! The record was followed up with 2013’s Dying Is A Wild Night, and most recently last month with the release of newest album, Radyo Siwèl.
It is always a difficult process to separate music from its backstory, and in the case of Radyo Siwèl it would be almost impossible. The record chronicles a deeply personal and intriguing journey for Mélissa. The project began in April 2016, when for the first time in two decades, Mélissa returned to Haiti in an attempt to get closer to her roots and in her own words, “honour her ancestors.”
Much of her attempts to discover her island’s history focused on the period between 1915 and 1934 when America occupied the island. These are particularly dark times in the history of Haiti, a time when having become the first Black Republic to seize its independence from the French, Haiti fell once more into the hands of an oppressive, and unwated, colonial power. The Haitian resistance manifested itself artistically in a local type of folk-music; resistance songs loaded with the traditions and the presence of vodou and its many loas, or divinities, who were summoned to protect the Haitian people and to aid in the fight against their oppressors.
Mélissa takes not just musical influence from this era, but in some places produces her own versions of the sound. Lè Ma Monte Chwal Mwen is a traditional folk song, introduced to Mélissa by legendary Haitian songwriter, Martha Jean-Claude’s version. Martha, who was one of the album’s main influences, was imprisoned for the militancy of her songwriting and eventually expatriated to Cuba.
Fascinating back story aside though, none of that would count for much without the utter brilliance of the music on show. Mélissa putting her own spin on the music of her heritage, stitching her own sound together with tradition and legend to create thrillingly modern takes on something with a huge historical weight. From Kouzen’s insistent, almost Walkmen-like beat to the pulsing bass-line of Tolalito, the best thing The Strokes never wrote, the lineage of indie-rock is obvious. Alongside it though, there’s a distinctly Caribbean feel, as slinky guitars and infectious rhythms weave their way into every track, and Mélissa’s stunning, husky vocal sings out with an emotive quality, obvious despite the fact it’s all sung in a language we don’t understand a word of. It’s simply a stunning, intriguing and wonderful record to listen to.
Is this good Haitian music? Honestly, we couldn’t even pretend to know. Has it been watered down for our mainstream pallet? Quite possibly. Despite that, does it sound wonderful? Absolutely! If it achieves nothing more than making people investigate Haitian music further then it’s a job well done.
Radyo Siwèl is out now via Nø Førmat! Click HERE for more information on Mélissa Laveaux.