The first time I met Manno Charlemagne, he was on the street side of the security gate in front of Miami’s Haitian Refugee Center, where I worked. It was after hours so I hesitated. He said quietly, “I’m Manno.”
A few years later, in 1994, as we were finishing up a breakfast interview at Tap Tap Haitian Restaurant (The Beat 13:6, 1994), Manno asked if I’d write a song for his upcoming concert at a Miami Beach venue called Stephen Talkhouse. He knew I was writing poems, and he was interested in crossing over to a non-Haitian audience from his position in exile.
A 1991 U.S.-supported coup d’état had driven President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office. The Clinton administration was trying to resolve the tensions between supporting anti-democracy military factions in Haiti, restoring the liberation-theologian-priest-turned-president while undermining his agenda, and interdicting/detaining Haitian refugees. Former President Jimmy Carter had recently returned from a “mission” to Port-au-Prince.
In the U.S., Carter’s trip was portrayed as a mission of mercy and diplomacy. Many in Haiti, of course, understood Carter’s role differently because of his earlier, pre-election visit. The Haitian Information Bureau explained it this way: “Carter was behind a letter he and former U.N. representative Andrew Young presented to Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Dec. 15, 1990, on the eve of the presidential elections. The letter said that Aristide accepted Marc L. Bazin – the candidate that the U.S. favored and funded – as president, despite the fact that nobody had even voted [yet]. Young reportedly said that they wanted the letter as a guarantee because the U.S. feared Aristide would not cede if Bazin won. (By this time, it was clear that Aristide would win.) Aristide refused to sign and the event has always been interpreted as yet one more pressure from the U.S. to influence local politics and undermine Aristide” (Haiti Info, 9/23/94).
After the coup, Carter met with General Raoul Cédras, the ostensible head of the military regime. (According to Manno, the U.S. had used the Haitian army majors for the coup, and the majors would have liked to kill Cédras but did not receive orders from the U.S. to do so.) Even the Washington Post reported widespread concern in Haiti that Carter was a “danger to democracy.” The right-wing Accuracy in Media took credit for its claimed behind-the-scenes role in making the Carter/Cédras meeting happen while “the media were misrepresenting the Haitian military as a ‘gang of thugs'” (AIM, “The Carter Mission: The Inside Story,” 9/19/94).
With all of this in the air, a comment from Carter after his Port-au-Prince meeting provided the spark: “‘Mrs. Cédras was impressive, powerful and forceful,’ he said. ‘And attractive. She was slim and very attractive.'”
I wrote lyrics in English to a tune I’d heard Manno play many times at Tap Tap. With the help of a mutual (and fluently bilingual) friend, Manno revised the English into Haitian Kreyòl, transforming the heavy-handed ditty into a song of his own.
Recently it had occurred to me to publish these lyrics when President Carter, who is now 93, dies and receives the predictable hagiography in the U.S. press.
Manno revised the English into Haitian Kreyòl, transforming the heavy-handed ditty into a song of his own.
As readers will know, Manno had surgery last summer to remove a brain tumor. At Mt. Sinai in Miami, he had lots of visitors. Nurses kept stopping by for selfies with him. A head nurse tried to put an end to the photos, which were appearing on social media, but Manno said he didn’t care. He introduced me to another visitor, a man who took care of him in Brooklyn when he first went into exile in the 80s; and to another who, Manno explained, had saved his life when he was jailed in Port-au-Prince. Out of respect for their privacy, I won’t say more than that.
When I was in the bathroom a few minutes after arriving, Manno started singing the Carter song. He was sitting in the hospital bed. He told me later, for the first time, how happy he’d been that I wrote the song to that particular tune. It was a melody he loved, and he recalled that as a child of six or seven, he was beaten for singing the “salty” song that originally went with it, though he hadn’t known what the words meant.
It was four months before Manno died. He told me to look up Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas,” which he said he also loved. And he appreciatively recalled Anthony (Tony) Romain, who, maybe 50 years earlier, had taught him some chords and loaned him a guitar on which to practice them.
“Screwing Haiti,” the song for Manno, went like this:
A man named Carter went to Port-au-Prince / To cut a deal or just to save a life, / But he forgot about dark little Haiti / Because he met the General’s light-skinned wife. // The army opens its mulatto legs, / Shalikashvili’s forces penetrate, / Cédras and Shelton suck each other off, / But Jimmy smiles because he’s got a date. // Bill Clinton tries to prove that he’s a man, / He shows the world that he knows how to push, / He’s screwing Haiti gently as he can, / While Jimmy Carter dreams of Haitian bush. // The old man says it’s just his human right / To find a girl who’s almost French — très chic — // So when he fucks his lonesome Georgia wife, / He grins and groans and calls for his Yannick!
(Gen. John Shalikashvili was head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff; Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton commanded U.S. troops in Haiti; Gen. Colin Powell accompanied Carter on his trip. Manno changed “mulatto army,” saying it oversimplified – that not all mulattoes were bad. Michel Laguerre’s The Military and Society in Haiti includes discussion of the so-called mulatto faction in the Haitian army.)
What follows are Manno’s Kreyòl version, its English translation, and (finally) the original “salty song” in Manno’s Kreyòl and English.
Mwen tande Katè rive Pòtoprens
Pou fè yon dil, pou sove lavi
Pitit ayiti yo li lan manti
Li wè Yanik li pèdi tèt li
La petit boujwazi toujou aplodi
Fòs dokipasyon pou yo fè òji
Cédras, Shelton, e lakonpani
Jimi, Powel, le kongrè osi
Nap gade Klinton ki ta vle pwouve
Le mond antye se gason li ye
Ayiti l rive se la li kanpe
Jimi Katè chita l ap reve
Si l kwè rèv Yani-a reyalize
Ti pèp ti dwa Katè papa
Pèp ayisyen an pran kout ba
Li soti wo li tonbe ba
Fò kanpe dwat on lè konsa
I hear that Carter arrived in Port-au-Prince
To cut a deal, to save the lives
Of Haitian children — he’s lying.
He saw Yannick and lost his mind.
The petite bourgeoisie always applaud
The forces of occupation and make an orgy of it —
Cédras, General Shelton, all those guys,
Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, and Congress, too.
We see Clinton, who would like to show
The whole world what a man he is.
He gets to Haiti and stops there,
While Jimmy Carter sits and dreams
Whether Yannick will be his dream-come-true.
Little people, little rights, Carter — yes, boss,
The Haitian people get fucked,
They start out high, they end up low,
They’ll have to stand up straight someday.
Konben-w pote se de gouden
M’vle-w eksplike’m kisa w’ap chèche
W-a chire zòrye’m nan
Zotèy ou twò long
W-a chire matela’m nan
Zong ou twò long
W-a chire vye dra’m nan
Kok ou twò gwo
W-a chire langèt mwen
Ale-w la ba avèk de gouden-w nan
Good morning, ma’am
Good morning, sir
How much do you have? It’s two gourdes
Tell me what you’re looking for
You’re going to tear my pillow
Your toes are too long
You’re going to tear my mattress
Your nails are too long
You’re going to tear my old sheet
Your cock’s too long
You’re going to tear my clit
Get out of here with your two gourdes
Mark Dow is a poet and author of “American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons.” He teaches English at Hunter College in New York.