By Jean H Charles
In Haiti, because of recurrent political upheaval, few institutions have survived long enough to celebrate their Jubilee Year. The Brothers of Christian Education has just marked their 150th year of strong and solid formation to the youths of Haiti. The Grand Orchestra Septentrional is celebrating this year its 65th anniversary of excellent and nostalgic music and the Grand Orchestra Tropicana has just added 50 candles to mark its half centenary of existence. These are endangered species in the Haitian cultural panorama
I grew up with the orchestra Tropicana. It is a model of resilience, of excellence and of coalescence. I have told the maestro of the orchestra, Cina Octavius Charles (Ti Blanc), I wish the republic of Haiti would emerge to become like Tropicana, an institution or a nation that become hospitable to all its citizens. Indeed, an evening with the Tropicana is a tool for upscale mobility, for quite a few women dress like a Cinderella for the occasion to catch a man of higher social status who readily mingle with all the devotees of the band.
Tropicana at the beginning was the laughing stock of its birthplace, the very stratified city of Cape Haitian. Sixty years ago, Cape Haitian had a distinct middle and upper class that did not associate with or pay attention to the lower class. Tropicana was classified the orchestra of the “people” meaning the lower class. Septentrional by contrast was the orchestra of the elite, the one that the sons and the daughters of the elite could go and dance to.
Tropicana, which took birth on August 15, 1963, has endured the humiliations and the derision of the times to become without contest the most popular, the most revered orchestra of the Republic of Haiti at home and abroad. By contrast, to celebrate its third anniversary on August 15 1966, there were only eight couples on the dance floor.
Tropicana today has left behind the orchestra Septentrional that trailed along but not with the same present aura of its rival. (Albeit Septentrional did beat up Tropicana in last year Carnival extravaganza in Cape Haitian.) The competition between the two orchestras is so vivid and so rigid that, during their 50 years of existence, both bands have played in the same venue only once, which was a fundraiser for the victims of the flood of November 22, 1968, in Cape Haitian.
With Haiti’s calendar of saints that schedules a feast day in a different town every day of the week, Tropicana could literally play every day at a different venue. Its presence is trailed by a whole group of fanatics who want nothing else than a dose of its mellow music to endure the upheavals of life. The minister of tourism and the minister of commerce of Haiti could plan a whole series of activities around a Tropicana bus tour that spans some 200 bookings per year to spur the economic vitality of the country.
At the beginning there was Claudin Toussaint, who we all called Vieux Tonton, a good and generous man (who passed away recently in New York City) and who pulled together five other musicians to organize a band that could rival for “the people” the Orchestra Septentrional.
It was at the dawn of the dictatorial era of the Duvaliers; the orchestra was being used or literally kidnapped by the government to play its part in the construction of the Duvalier dynasty. Claudin had to escape without clothing to avoid arrest and political persecution. Maestro Emmanuel Turenne, who succeeded Claudin Toussaint, did not let the orchestra die down, he played his part in a survival mode, and started composing glorifying pieces to honor the merit and the firm hand of the Duvalier’s.
Like the Catholic Church under the emperor Constantine the Great, Tropicana left the confined stratified territory of the north and of Cape Haitian to become the orchestra of the people, playing in different venues in the republic of Haiti under the watchful eye and the delight of the Duvalier goons, always ready to discharge their guns into the sky to express their organic and virile pleasure.
On the revolution of 1987 that sent the Duvaliers into exile, Tropicana through appropriate music became the siren for the liberated Haiti from the yoke of dictatorship urging hope, unity and solidarity in pieces such as: “Keep Your Dignity; We Are All Brothers and Fight to Survive.”
His musicians, some of them veterans of 35 years like Paul Edouard Jean (Polo) a singer (my grammar school class mate), his keyboardist Gerard Jean (who was few years in front of me in elementary school), to whom new blood has been added like Sore and Sore fils; the strong leadership of Tiblanc and Pierre Pelota (who is brushing with politics to follow President Michel Martelly in debating becoming senator of the north of Haiti), they are all like a fraternity who endure and love each other through the good and bad times.
The Grand Orchestra Tropicana is more than a musical institution it is also a social vehicle to embark upon the reconstruction of the Republic of Haiti. Its nonprofit branch Fonda Tropic is engaged in environment rehabilitation such as tree plantings, health fair for women and children, music school to perpetuate the trade, etc.
Tropicana could not succeed alone without the unconditional support of devotees such as Antoine Augustin, Joubert Constant, Andal Remay; they were there when Tropicana was celebrating its 25th anniversary.
While Tropicana is popular in Haiti, it needs to have a wider resonance abroad. It was at the origin of the internationally known Cuban band, Buena Vista. Tropicana needs its own patron filmmaker to retrace its story of resilience and of glory as to share with the world the opus of a people that know how to survive and not let go to despair.
Tropicana needs its place at Tropicana, the Las Vegas casino, to enchant an international audience with Haitian music, as well as its sensual dance that goes to the bone in provoking memorable pleasure of yesterday when looking good, feeling good and smelling good was the essence of life.
With the planet as a village, the rural village of Bahon or Saint Suzanne in Haiti might miss Tropicana for its fiesta day but it will be for the benefit of a wider audience in Arizona or Jaffa that will propel the Grand Orchestra Tropicana one stratosphere higher in its zenith of radiance and excellence.
Pictures courtesy of William Farrington of Africa Sounds.