The Drum Never Stops Beating: Music as Resistance on Radio Haïti-Inter

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog

Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever is a multidisciplinary performance commissioned by Duke Performances, set to new music by Haitian-American singer-songwriter Leyla McCalla. It draws inspiration from the archive of Radio Haïti-Inter, which is held by Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. (The title of McCalla’s performance refers to an expression the station’s journalists used to describe the violent silencing of the free press by those who wished to deny or conceal the information they reported.)

Radio Haïti-Inter was Haiti’s first and most prominent independent radio station, and the first station to broadcast the news, investigative reporting, and in-depth interviews in Haitian Creole, the language of all Haitian people. It was a public platform that allowed ordinary people from throughout Haiti to hear one another and to have a say in the country’s affairs. The station was also a place where writers, poets, and playwrights discussed and performed their work; where painters and sculptors explained their craft; where Vodou adherents spoke of the sacred arts and the drumbeat; and where musicians played and recorded their songs. When Jean Dominique inaugurated Radio Haïti-Inter in 1971, he launched a political project as well. “That project was embodied by a single word, which I unleashed upon the ears of the pen-and-ink set, the intellectuals who read and write the big books: haïtianité,” Dominique explained to Michèle Montas, his wife and professional partner, who interviewed him for a special anniversary broadcast in 1991.[1] “This project was to find our fundamental culture, our identity, that which makes us ourselves.”

Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas in the studio, circa 1995. Radio Haiti Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Dominique had been dismissed from his post as an agronomist in northern Haiti and imprisoned in 1958 after his older brother Philippe was killed in an attempt to overthrow François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. No longer able to work as an agronomist, Dominique became a journalist, but his passion and political commitment remained with Haiti’s rural farmers and other groups who had long been excluded from political and social power. Jean-Claude Duvalier succeeded his father in 1971, claiming to be more tolerant of human rights and free speech. But this “tolerance” was conditional, a ploy to ensure that foreign aid — particularly from the United States — would continue to flow to the corrupt and repressive government. Though the independent press took some cautious steps forward during the early years of  Duvalier fils, they still had to be careful about what they said and how they said it. Journalists could still pay with their lives if they were too critical of the regime. They had to be indirect in their resistance to the Duvalier government and his paramilitary forces, the Tontons Macoutes.

“This project was to find our fundamental culture, our identity, that which makes us ourselves.”

— Jean Dominique

“Don’t forget, in 1968, ‘69, ‘70, at the end of François Duvalier and the beginning of Jean-Claude, the problems facing the country were very difficult: the problem of Macoutes, the problem of all the European and American powers who were descending on the country, supposedly to provide aid. But everyone understood, everyone suspected, that that ‘aid’ would help us lose our essence,” Dominique continued in the 1991 anniversary broadcast. “In 1971, I wanted to focus on that disappearing essence, on the loss of national identity as a result of international aid. But I couldn’t say those things directly. I had to speak of those things andaki” — in veiled or coded ways. “That’s why, when I focused on haïtianité, it was a way for me to tell Luckner Cambronne, for me to tell Luc Désir, for me to tell Jean Valmé: ‘be careful! You’re selling the country.’” Cambronne, the Minister of the Interior, was infamous for selling Haitian blood and cadavers to US medical schools. Désir, the chief of the secret police, kept one hand on his Bible and the other on his Uzi. Valmé, the Port-au-Prince police chief, would personally order the violent arrest of Radio Haiti’s journalists on 28 November 1980.

Radio Haiti Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Political resistance and music have long gone hand-in-hand in Haiti, from the traditional Vodou drums and chants to the mizik angaje (engaged political music) that catalyzed opposition to the Duvalier regime in the 1970s and 1980s.[2] Haiti’s peasant farmers sing chan pwen, “pointed” folk songs filled with coded mockery of powerful and repressive authorities.[3] During Lent, rara processions allow poor people to “remember history, create publicity, and negotiate power under conditions of insecurity.”[4] Urban bann a pye (street bands) perform politicized critique of the Haitian government and the international community during the Carnival season.[5]

Through music, Radio Haiti’s journalists could say what they could not say directly. In 1980, they set to music a text by Radio Haiti’s poet-journalist Richard Brisson, lamenting the plight of Haitian migrants at sea: dan reken pi dous pase kacho prizon (“the shark’s teeth are gentler than the prison cell”). Brisson would be executed by the Duvalier regime two years later.

In a 1980 broadcast on burgeoning democratic movements in Latin America, they played Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa’s forceful rendition of Daniel Toro’s “Cuando tenga la tierra” about rural people reclaiming their land. They played angaje music by the New York-based Atis Endepandan, whose songs conveyed messages that artists in Haiti did not have the freedom to sing. (Some of McCalla’s original compositions for Breaking the Thermometer are inspired Atis Endepandan songs.) In the 1991 anniversary broadcast, Radio Haiti played the chorus of the Atis Endepandan’s “Dodinen”: Dodinen monkonpè, w a dodinen. M a rale chèz la, w a va kase ren w (“Rock in your rocking chair, my friend, keep rocking. I’m gonna pull out the chair from under you, and you’ll go tumbling down”), and recalled how they used to play the song during the time of the dictatorship.

“Do you remember, Jean?” asked Michèle Montas. “Sometimes when we received those songs from the dyaspora, saying things that we couldn’t say, ourselves — sometimes we had to take out a line, or two words, three words, because otherwise we couldn’t play them. Do you remember that?”

“Oh! I remember!” Dominique replied. “When I’d leave the post office, with the records tucked under my arm, I’d run to the studio, I’d lock the door, and I’d play the songs to see how I could use them in the Sunday Inter-Actualités Magazine broadcast. But then I’d stumble across a line — woy! a line where they were point-blank accusing the Macoutes, pointing the finger directly at the river of blood that was Duvalier’s black-and-red flag. I’d say, ‘No way, I can’t play that, they’ll arrest me.’ When that happened, I’d have to take out that line. The struggle was an andaki struggle.”[6]

Radio Haiti’s jingles and theme songs also reflected Haitian national culture. They played a refrain by Haitian guitarist Amos Coulanges, “Nan fon bwa,” in their cultural program Entre Nous – a melody that McCalla, in turn, echoes in Breaking the Thermometer. Many of Radio Haiti’s original jingles were based on Haitian folk songs. As Dominique explains below, the station’s main theme, Toutes les nouvelles du monde entier, sur Haïti-Inter, et sur Haïti tout entier! (“All the news of the world, on Radio Haiti, and about all of Haiti!”) was based on the melody of “Grenadye alaso,” a traditional song of resistance.

“That’s what I thought haïtianité could represent, starting with those little songs,” Dominique explained. “But don’t forget: those little songs were battle songs, they allowed us to ascend the slopes of Vertières and the cliffs of Charrier, these are the songs that Comrades Charlemagne [Péralte] and Benoît Batraville sang in the Central Plateau, these are the songs the Haitian people have never forgotten, under the perestil, these songs filled with stories and riddles and combat strategies… All of that was part of haïtianité.”[7]

Thousands of jubilant supporters meet Jean Dominique at the airport upon his return from exile, March 1986. Radio Haiti Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Radio Haiti continued to employ use after Duvalier fell in 1986, through Haiti’s never-ending democratic transition and a succession of coups d’état, through years filled with new and old forms of violence and repression. Music was part of the station, inextricable from its politics. They played songs by angaje singer Manno Charlemagne, who, in his rich and gravelly voice, drew on Haitian proverbs to describe the strength of the Haitian people: N ap lite tout lavi kont tout vye dan pouri ki kwè n sa bannann mi (“We have been fighting all our lives against those rotten teeth who believe we are nothing but soft ripe bananas”). After Dominique was slain in 2000, assassinated alongside station employee Jean-Claude Louissaint in Radio Haiti’s courtyard under neither a dictatorship nor a de facto military regime but rather under a democratic government, the station regularly played a song by the Vodou house Sosyete Grandra to call out the climate of impunity: Anvan ou touye mwen, fò w jije m sèt fwa (“Before you kill me, you must judge me seven times”).

It is fitting, then, that Breaking the Thermometer, a performance by Leyla McCalla, Haitian-American artist with activist roots, has emerged from the Radio Haiti Archive. For Radio Haiti, music was national identity, music was resistance, music was a way to denounce and outwit the forces, from within Haiti and from abroad, that sought to exploit, crush, destroy, and suck the Haitian people dry. “That’s the message contained in the songs,” Dominique declared. “That’s the message contained each beat of the drum. And that is why, on Radio Haiti, the drum never stops beating.”

Leyla McCalla (standing), her mother Gigi Dupuy and sister Sabine McCalla on their way to a demonstration in support of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was brutalized by NYPD officers in 1997. National Coalition for Haitian Rights Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
March in support of Abner Louima. Radio Haiti Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.


Laura Wagner was the Radio Haiti Project Archivist at Duke from 2015 to 2019. She has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, and is the author of Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go (Abrams, 2015), a novel about the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

To learn more about Radio Haïti-Inter, visit Radio Haïti-Inter: Three Decades of Resistance, on display at the Rubenstein Arts Center, February 27 thru March 8

[1] “Emisyon espesyal: 56 zan Radyo Ayiti.” Radio Haiti Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[2] Averill, Gage. A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

[3] Smith, Jennie. “Singing Back: The Chan Pwen of Haiti.” Ethnomusicology 48, No. 1 (Winter, 2004): 105-126.

[4] McAlister, Elizabeth. Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002: 6.

[5] Kivland, Chelsey Louise. “On Rituals of Governance: An Inquiry into the Performative Logic of Sovereignty, Sparked by the Contemporary Practices of Bann a Pye in Bel Air, Haiti,” Journal of Haitian Studies 15, no. 1/2 (2009): 318-332.

[6] “Istwa Radyo Ayiti, Emisyon espesyal 56 zan, Jean L. Dominique.” Radio Haiti Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[7] The Battle of Vertières was the decisive final battle of the Haitian Revolution, upon the hillside of Charrier in northern Haiti, in November 1803. Charlemagne Péralte and Benoît Batraville were two leaders of the Cacos, guerrillas who took up armed resistance against the US occupation of Haiti and were executed by the US Marines in 1919 and 1920. A perestil is a Vodou temple.