Manno Charlemagne with Helen Gillet
Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter St., 522-2841; www.preservationhall.com
A t this time last year, Bernard Pearce, like many Americans, had never heard of Manno Charlemagne. Listening to an NPR report by Miami correspondent Kenny Malone in January, Pearce, a Lafayette-based musician who records under the handle One Man Machine, fell in love with the Haitian singer's sound: captivating, acoustic guitar-voiced Caribbean cantatas. But it was Charlemagne's terrible stories, cloaked in misleadingly romantic French "Kreyol," that spurred Pearce into action.
"The music is incredible," Pearce says. "His voice, the guitar work, that alone is pretty impressive. I've never heard guitar work like that. The lyrics, when you read the translations, it's pretty brutal."
It's easy to get lost in the rolling undulations of Charlemagne's careful tenor and mistake them for Serge Gainsbourg seductions. They are not. "The dominant class is very clever," he excoriates on "Oganizasyon Mondyal" ("International Organizations"). "In principle, they know they are the minority/ They know how to play it/ Their class position is what counts/ They'll do the impossible, they'll rampage/ To eliminate the child in the womb."
Learning Charlemagne's impossible history through song and story — a folk hero in Haiti on par with Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, a political exile and one-time mayor of Port-au-Prince — Pearce reached out to Malone, who put him in touch with Joann Biondi, a Miami-based journalist and Charlemagne's longtime friend of. This week, a year's worth of work culminates in the Haitian legend visiting Louisiana for the first time, for a series of concerts in Lafayette and New Orleans finishing with the Congo Square Rhythms Festival on Nov. 14.
"The people in Haiti really connect with him," Pearce says. "We're talking about a man whose songs actually inspired a revolution. His life has been threatened; he's been beaten and tortured because of his music."
But Pearce's tone turns light when relaying Charlemagne's first impression of Crescent City music: "One time he got in trouble for listening to this record outside somebody's house. He heard this music, so he just sat down outside the window and listened. ... He thought maybe Louis Armstrong was inside the house. That was one of the first artists he really connected to."
Speaking by phone from Miami, Charlemagne confirms the anecdote. "I was a kid, 5 years old," he says. "I heard that voice, and when I am older, I realize it was Louis Armstrong. It's a pleasure for me to be there, to walk Bourbon Street, to go to Congo Square."
Charlemagne was living in Miami in January, performing a regular gig at the Haitian cultural outpost Tap Tap, when the 7.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed much of his homeland, killing friends and cutting off communication with his two sons (both survived). If not for happenstance, Charlemagne says, he too might have died: "I was supposed to be in Haiti Jan. 11. And I fell Jan. 9 in my hotel, closing a vent. I saw from the hospital: I would be there! If I didn't have that accident, I would have died in Haiti."
For Pearce, Charlemagne's plight mirrored his own after Hurricane Katrina. "That's why I wanted to reach out to Manno and see what I could do to try and hook him up with a record label, maybe some management," he says. "That's all I'm trying to do: set him up with someone who can maybe represent him. I don't think he's ever worked with a label, never really had any sort of representation. And he's never really sought it out either.
"Hopefully we can bring him back in the spring, and do some more work in Louisiana," Pearce adds. "I've been talking to people in France about bringing him out there. I'm just hoping someone locally will see him and fall in love, and try to support him and his music." ("Yes, I would do that," Charlemagne says to the offers.)
Asked about the connection forged from shared tragedy, the singer's answer mirrors his music: "You have some issues like we do. In Haiti, it was the earthquake; you, Katrina. Oh man, that was tough. I applaud you. To go from Katrina to Super Bowl champs, it's something special."