The nickname "Queen of Haitian Song" doesn't sit well with Emeline Michel. The daughter of a Baptist pastor of modest means from Gonaives, Michel rose to become a teen singing sensation in the mid-1980s. Thanks to a mix of the country's native rhythms and American R&B, she brought a fresh, liberated sensuality to Haitian pop music. Since then, she's matured into an authentic transnational diva, incorporating Haitian folk traditions into a more sophisticated sound. While her soulful, emotionally rich voice might have earned her royal status among Haitians, at home and in the diaspora, she's not one to put on airs.
"I don't like titles. They call me 'queen' all the time," says Michel. "It embarrasses me more than making me feel special." Her most recent album, 2008's Reine de Coeur, subverts that tag. The title translates to "queen of hearts."
"I said, 'OK, if I'm a queen, I'm a queen of the heart. I want to have the biggest heart ever to share with everybody, and give that wherever I go to my music," Michel says.
World music audiences hungry for the likes of Cesaria Evora, Susana Baca and Lila Downs: Prepare to lose your hearts to Emeline Michel. Reine de Coeur was written in Africa and Haiti and partly recorded on a trip to Burkina Faso. Leading the album is "Gade Papi," a song that features takes by two young guitar players—one recorded in Burkina Faso, the other in Haiti.
"I wanted that to just transcend that connection that music gave us," she says. "You go straight to Africa, and you're going to find the same thing."
Sung mostly in Kreyol, with some French and English, the album is steeped in Pan-Caribbean flavors, from bolero, reggae, tango and jazz to Haiti's own unique sounds—slow-dancing konpa, acoustic twoubadou with banjo and accordion, and drum-based rasin, a secular music derived from vodou. Though drums are practically synonymous with Haiti, the Haitian tanbou is not heard as often in world music and jazz as the conga. Fluttering Haitian beats, compared with those of a Cuban rumba, for instance, have a faster, more sinuous flow.
"Haitian drumming is very round. [The drumhead] is made of goatskin, so that brings a percussive sound, but also something round, and deeper. It talks to you low, in the sense that a bass player would play," explains Michel.
Despite an album built with such characteristically Haitian sounds, it took some measure of rebellion for Michel to find those roots as a child.
"I came very, very late to the traditional side of my music because my parents were religious. They really connected the drum with the loa (gods), with the spiritual vodou religion side of Haiti," says Michel. "I would take the money they gave me for school and go and take lessons in traditional dance. I was 12 when I started dancing, and not only learning the rhythm but enjoying the whole music behind it, the whole connection with slavery that I discovered through my teachers."
Traditional music exploded in Haiti following the coup in 1986, when then-president Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier left the country. In his study on Haitian popular music, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, ethnomusicologist Gage Averill characterizes the period as "a continuing tumult in musical style." Coming of age in this new climate of artistic freedom, Michel was inspired by Boukman Eksperyans and other groups that were already fusing international styles—rock 'n' roll, for instance—with traditional Haitian rhythms.
"At this time, when Jean-Claude [Duvalier] just left, some kind of positive spirit of renewal was among the artists' community," she says. "Beautiful musicians, beautiful artistry just blossomed. That period of my life was all about art, in every sense of the word. We were going full circle, full time."
Just before the coup, while Michel was still in college, she took a detour to, of all places, the Motor City. That year, she won a scholarship for a semester-long exchange program at the Detroit Jazz Center and enrolled for another full year of study there. She extended her jazz training while polishing her English and getting an insider's look at Motown's music industry. She saw Whitney Houston sing, a session between Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker, and a prison performance by Stevie Wonder. Her school choir even opened that show.
From Haitian gospel and vodou to formal training in classical and jazz, the diversity of Michel's vocal training has contributed to her unique sound. Much of the expressiveness in her voice comes from finely attuned vocal control—changes in vibrato, breathing support and registers. Imagine a combination of two very different singers: Sarahs Vaughan and McLachlan.
"The emphasis for me is to really never forget the story that I'm telling in my music, that's really what guides [my choice of technique]," she explains. "Is my voice going to be breathy, airy, or is it going to go to the guts, or the lower abdomen where you belt, or is it going to go in my head where I can reach the soprano side? Each really depends on the story I'm telling."
To date, Michel has lived abroad in Paris, Montreal and New York, releasing a total of nine albums. Music videos of her '80s and '90s pop hits, such as "A.K.I.K.O.," "Flamn" and "Amandine," still make for entertaining nostalgia, but the shift to her mature, cosmopolitan yet uniquely Haitian sound almost didn't happen. An aborted English crossover album when she was signed to Sony in 1999 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She returned to Haiti, renting a house and rewriting those songs. The result was Cordes et Ame (Strings and Soul)—a largely acoustic, bare roots album that signaled Michel's spiritual homecoming. It was also one of her best-selling records.
"When you lost it all, you go to the place where you started. I have veneration for the old people, and I also love the simplistic side of certain music, like the twoubadou. That is a groove that just talks to you," she says. "But it's just made of like the smallest congas, and the guitars with three chords, a little banjo, and they're just making songs that just warm your heart. And I started with that."
Saturday's concert in Stewart Theatre will be the first time Michel performs in Raleigh with her own seven-piece Haitian band, although she appeared last year as a guest with violinist/ composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. Roumain performs with Michel's band this time, and delivers a pre-concert talk.
"My father had Emeline's records," says Roumain, a Haitian-American raised in South Florida. "I grew up with a really good understanding of who she was. I've always seen her as sort of a Joni Mitchell, or a Joan Armatrading or a Tracy Chapman. She's a warrior in that sense. She has a graceful consciousness. And I think she's very important to the worldwide Haitian community because she's seen as something that's very authentic. I daresay, more so than Wyclef Jean, more so than a lot of other Haitian artists."
Michel probably wouldn't tout herself in those words, but the Queen of Hearts knows better than anyone that her art stays grounded in her rural Haitian beginnings.
"The fact that I grew up in the countryside with Grandfather, Grandmother, in places where there's no electricity, and I cooked the food, and ran after the chickens, and swam in the river ... all my souvenirs belong to my country," Michel says. "So when I'm writing a song, every color and description in the song will talk to the Haitian, because it's really who I am."