Beyond the One Drop Rule: Haiti at the 2012 Olympics ~ by Katia D. Ulysse

One very popular news article that’s been circulating about the Haitian Olympians contains a line that goes like this: “Four out of five of the Haitians at the Olympics have one thing in common: they’re not from Haiti.”

Question(s): If you look completely “European” but have one parent who is of “African descent,” what do they call you? If both of your parents are American but you were born elsewhere, what do they expect you to call yourself? What do they call you in the heat of an argument? 

How many are watching and cheering for Haiti’s team in London? Medal or no medal, we’re proud of them. Yes, we know that Linouse Desravine is the only who was born on the island. Perhaps we are impressed by more than her athletic prowess. Perhaps we’re just proud of people who choose to honor their ancestry in front of millions.

Here’s what triple jumper and Georgetown Law School grad, Samyr Laine, wrote in a recent article on the Web: “When I win a medal, the first thing I plan to do is find my parents and brothers to thank them for being there and being on this journey with me. Then I’m going to grab a Haitian flag from the crowd and find a television camera so that the world knows that it’s Haiti’s medal.”

In The Miami Herald, hurdler Jeff Julmis shares his reason for choosing Haiti: “I’ve been wanting to represent Haiti ever since I was a kid. I definitely feel a special connection with the people there. All you hear about is the turmoil and what a negative place it is. I just want to go to London and make Haiti proud.”

Pascale Delaunay, a sprinter, is disappointed about not making the team. This quote is from her blog: “I wanted to represent Haiti at the Olympic Games so that everyone could see Haitians are more than just poverty, I won’t be there but I have 4 great teammates Moise Joseph – 800m, Samyr Laine-Triple Jump, Jeff Julmis-110H and Marlena Wesh-200/400m) that I trust to represent our flag to the fullest.”

This is beyond demonyms and the One-Drop Rule. In an interview with the Associated Press, Marlena Wesh says: “I still feel Haitian even if I wasn’t born there.” 



When my American husband and I bought groceries in Central Florida recently, I recognized the unnameable thing in our cashier’s eyes. Her name-tag did not have a backward-leaning apostrophe on the middle e in Michele, but I had to ask anyway: “Are you Haitian?”

“No,” Michele answered with a candid smile.

My husband chuckled. Hadn’t he told me—for years—that I was not an expert at guessing people’s nationalities simply by looking at them?

“No?” My question hung in the air.

“I’m not Haitian,” Michele went on. “But my father is.”

“Your father is. . .


Now, I was the one smiling. Michele glanced at the line of customers behind me. I’d run out of time to ask more questions.

Michele, like my husband, was born in the United States. Her father is Haitian; she is not. She never mentioned mom or mom’s nationality; that did not matter. Perhaps Michele considers herself “Haitian-American.” Perhaps she calls herself simply “American.” The choice should be hers, even when she has to check the “ethnicity,” “nationality,” or “race” box on a legal document. My husband’s parents, grand-parents, and great-grand-parents were born in America’s Heart Land. So, I allow him to call himself American;-)

Now, the “foreign-born” athletes who carry the Haitian flag in London have Haitian parents. The athletes may not have certificates that list Haiti as their birthplace. They may not hold Haitian passports; they may not qualify to vote in our many elections; certainly they are forbidden to run for president, but they chose to represent the drops of Haitian blood in their veins. More power to them–literally.

Each one deserves a gold medal for standing, running, jumping, and kicking for our beloved country.

For all the children in Haiti who are so proud of you; for elderly Haitians who’d give anything to run just one more race, a gwo Thank YOU to Haiti’s Olympians!


Pour le pays. Pour la patrie. Pour les petits enfants qui sont si fiers de vous. Pou tout grandmoun ki ta renmen kouri yon denyè kous. Merci to the 2012 Haitian Olympians in London. Kenbe la!

Monvelyno Alexis: The Man behind The Music (a VFH Replay)

MONVELYNO ALEXIS‘s passion for music was fueled by a deep appreciation of the  Gospel genre–which he credits for bringing awareness to his talent as a singer. “Music is the language of the soul,” Monvelyno says. “I want to speak it as well as I can. I want to have that conversation with everyone who wants us to understand one another.”

Monvelyno’s quest to speak “the language of the soul” took him to Soukri, Badjo, Souvnans–places which he calls “temples of Haiti’s musical legacy from our African ancestors.”

Those temples unlocked Monvelyno’s hidden potential and cleared new paths for his creativity. The idea of his Kòd ak Po (Strings & Skins) originated from conversations with vodun clerics and deep studies of their rituals and spiritual songs.

Monvelyno admits it will time and more projects beyond Kòd ak Po to continue to shape his studies into what the listener will discover as a major step toward a unique rendition of traditional Haitian music.”

I spoke to Monvelyno recently. The following is an INNERview into the man behind the sound: Meet Monvelyno Alexis!

Katia: I like the name Monvelyno.  How did it become yours?

Monvelyno: My great-grandfather, who was from Brazil, loved the word Velyno. My father liked the sound of  the word “Mon,” which in French means mine. They combined the two, and I became their Monvelyno.

Katia: That makes you your father’s son in a very special way. Were you born in Brazil as well?

Monvelyno:  I was born in the Delmas section of Haiti. My dad had homes in Fontamara, yet our family never quite settled down. We move from place to place, as if we had nowhere to go. When I became conscious of what was happening; when I was no longer a kid; when I could process and understand things, I found myself in Carrefour Feuille. That was really the place where I grew up.

Katia: Did you always want to be a guitarist?

Monvelyno: Originally, I wanted to be a conga player. I love the drum. The instrument we call the guitar is not from my country. The conga is from my country. The core of my music is conga. When I’m composing, it’s the conga I hear. When I perform, I feel the conga. I grew up around bands like Foula with master percussionist Jean Raymond Giglio, who lived only for art and music. I’ll always mention his name wherever I go. Without Jean Raymond, I would not be half the musician I am today. Musicians like Bonga, Chico, Jean-Raymond, Samba-yo, and Tido introduced me to the treasure of Haitian traditional music. It’s only by chance that I play the guitar now. For a long time it was simply another means to express my thoughts and emotions. It’s different with the conga. The drum rhythms live inside of me: Congo, Nago, Ibo, Petro, Yanvalou. It’s only after I feel those rhythms that I pick up a guitar to find the chords, notes, that sort of thing.

Katia: What do you think of the generation of musicians coming up in Haiti right now?

Monvelyno: The new generation of Haitian musicians appears to be lost. They don’t seem to know what Haiti is about anymore. I am sorry to say this, but I think they have forgotten who they are. Music is a large part of our history. Culture is based on the history of a nation. If you forget your history, you’re not going to be able to express the culture. You’re going to be confused. You’re going to grab anything from anywhere and try to make it your own.

Katia: What exactly are they grabbing to make their own?

Monvelyno:  They “borrow” mostly from American music. I went to Haiti recently and watched a music competition on TV.  All the contestants sang American songs. Nothing was in Kreyòl. That made me sad. It’s really not the musicians’ fault, however. Haiti has suffered a lot. Outsiders have invested much in breaking down authentic Haitian culture. Some people really don’t want those kids to know who their ancestors were; they want them to forget their history and how they got here. The country is a mess, and the kids are products of that mess. Not to mention, the Haitian government invests very little in the arts. They don’t value artists. I became what I am because of the great people who surrounded me. Otherwise I would have been lost musically, too. I’d probably be trying to borrow from different cultures, too. I’d be trying to sing rap, too. We have a wealth of rhythms in our own culture. There’s no need to take what’s not ours. But the kids don’t want anything to do with traditional Haitian music anymore. That’s the reality of where we are.

Katia: Ultimately it is our fault. Are we the ones throwing away our own culture?

Monvelyno: Yes, in a sense. Few Haitian musicians are still dedicated to traditional music. When a country doesn’t value its own culture, it’s easy for the people to become lost.

Katia: How would you describe what you do? Your music? Yourself?

Monvelyno: I want to show everyone the Haitian tradition. I want to show people how beautiful my country is. The music is not about me. We were, we are, and we will be a beautiful country. I carry that truth with me, and strive to express it in my music.

Katia:  How long have you been living in the United States?

Monvelyno: I’ve been here for seven years. Before that I was in Martinique, Guadeloupe; I lived in Paris for some time. I traveled all over the place before I came to the United States.

Katia: Haitians at home call those who live outside the island a “Dyas.” How do you feel about that term?

Monvelyno: Dyas, to me, is a negative term. Those of us who carry the culture with us are more like ambassadors. It is true that when certain people come to the U.S., they don’t want to be Haitian anymore. I don’t want to put myself in that category. The ones who like to pretend they don’t speak Kreyòl anymore are probably the ones who deserve to be called Dyas. Me, I am Haitian wherever I go. I’m not carrying that Dyas label on my shoulder.

Katia: What’s on your playlist right now?

Monvelyno: I listen to Foula. Samba-yo, Thurgot Theodat. Haitian musicians. Souvenance, Badjo, all the CDs that Aboudja made. That’s where I’m comfortable.

Katia: You love Haiti so much. Why do you live in New York?

Monvelyno: I am here because of circumstances. When you are a straight-forward artist, Haiti is not always the safest place for you. You might get arrested for speaking the truth. They put you in jail. They hunt you down. If I want to contribute and work for my culture, I have to be here for now. I can’t function in my country as a musician right now. But whenever I am there, I create like crazy. When I’m in Haiti I can compose at least 20 songs in just as many days. Our country is that powerful. If your mind and heart are in the right place, Haiti fills you with creativity.

Katia: I agree. When I’m in Haiti something in the ground reaches through me and fills me with inspiration.

Monvelyno: Exactly.

Katia: You said earlier that “straight-forward” musicians in Haiti are often hunted and not safe. And by straight forward, you mean those who don’t mask the truth of our daily reality. Do you think that’s the reason why upcoming musicians stay away from traditional Haitian music?

Monvelyno: Maybe. But the younger generation thinks anyone who plays Haitian traditional music is crazy. They’re into Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Shakira. They want Haiti to turn into the US. Most of the young musicians in Haiti today don’t value our own culture. My first CD was completed 10 years before it was released. Nobody in Haiti wanted anything to do with traditional music. It took leaving the country for people to appreciate its worth. It was not possible to make that kind of music in Haiti.

Katia: If no one in Haiti wants to hear traditional Haitian music, what would motivate the new generation of musicians to take that route? What about money and being able to feed one’s family? Maybe the new generation of Haitian musicians—like the American artists they imitate—is just trying to make a living.

Monvelyno: Sure, money is great. If I played with those guys, I know I would make much more money than I do now. But those guys are not trying to keep Haitian culture alive. That is my personal mission—not chasing the dollar. I understand about making money. We have to eat.

Katia: Speaking of food:  When you are hungry, do you reach for a hamburger or a plate of  rice and beans?

Monvelyno: If you want to make me happy, give me my mayi moulen, my pitimi, yam. Give me my plantain with herring sauce. That’s want I want.

Katia: Is there a special person who cooks all this food for you?

Monvelyno: I cook for myself. When I invite friends to my house, I cook for them. That’s another way I share my culture with them.

Katia: Who taught you how to cook?

Monvelyno: My mother.

Katia: What else did your mother teach you?

Monvelyno: My mother gave me the basic knowledge of life. There’s no school that could have taught me what my mother did. My mother and my grandmother taught me everything I know is true and important.

Katia: Where are those ladies now?

Monvelyno: My mother is still in Haiti. She doesn’t want to be here. She says the cold weather would kill her. I don’t blame her. I understand.

Katia: You can’t argue against the sunshine. What are your thoughts about the rebuilding efforts taking place in Haiti today? Also, are they talking to the artists at all about their role in the new Haiti?

Monvelyno: They don’t consider us as important as the politicians, the doctors, the science people. Even teachers…they don’t consider teachers important at all. Musicians, artists (laugh). We’re going to lose large chunks of our culture. What is happening now should not be confused with re-construction anyway. It is construction. When you reconstruct something, you restore its original grandeur and beauty. That’s not what’s going on in Haiti today. They’re building a new country. What had been in the east now will be moved to the west. What had been in the south will go to the north. That’s building something new, not restoring what was there. It’s going to be like the original Haiti never existed. Authentic Haitian culture may be facing extinction. There will be a new culture when the supposed rebuilding is done, but it won’t be ours.

Katia: Monvelyno. If you could change one thing about Monvelyno Alexis today, what would it be?

Monvelyno: Go back to live in Haiti right now. That’s the only thing I would change.


For Monvelyno’s concert schedule, please visit Reverbnation.

This exclusive VoicesfromHaiti INNERview was published previously in June 2011.


Val Jeanty, Sound Artist: A VFH INNERview Replay

Photo courtesy of Val Jeanty

Trying to define Val Jeanty’s sound is challenging. Labels–however much we dislike them–help to make sense out of certain things. But what happens when the musical style known as ‘Afro-Electronica’ and Val Jeanty meet?

Imagine the Mona Lisa in liquid form–just pigmented oil. Imagine da Vinci trying to explain to someone exactly how the finished work would look. Now, think of ten thousand graffiti artists commissioned to give the Brooklyn Bridge a make-over. Try to describe what the end result would be. Unless you’ve heard Val perform, you won’t know what to expect. Even if you’ve heard her a dozen times, you still won’t know.

I doubt that Val could tell you precisely what she plans to do on stage. Every show is packed with surprises. However, one constant remains: She will blow you away. Val likes to say: “I’m a vessel. I let the inspiration come, you know. I let the spirits do whatever they want.” The spirits do show up, collide, and jostle for their proper place in the spotlight.

Val Jeanty’s sound blasts the perimeters of what you might consider avant garde. It’s chaos expertly controlled. You will react. How? You won’t know until you hear and see and touch and taste and smell the life that pulsates in a room when this lady takes the stage.

Sound Artist Vaj Jeanty, Percussionist Sergo Decius, Haitian-born Writer Katia D. Ulysse

Val Inc performs worldwide, but you can find her in New York City–her hometown. When she’s not busy performing, take a moment to chat with her. Val is a talker whose conversations come in a mixture of English, Kreyòl, and French. She’s a natural-born teacher. Ask her anything–just not how to define her music.

Catch Val’s performance on August 4th at the Brooklyn Museum in collaboration with Haiti Cultural Exchange.

Click this to read the VFH InnerView.




Haitian Kreyòl Fortune Cookie

You crumple the fortune cookie after your mountain of General Tso’s. Inside it you find—in addition to the usual—Chinese characters with the English approximation in parentheses, teaching you a word you didn’t know you wanted to learn. To my non-Haitian friends who are itching to learn a new Kreyòl word today, it is my pleasure to offer you the term “Ja,” pronounced /΄ʒæ /.  The “J” sounds like the “s” in vision. The “a” sounds like the one in “art.” Never mind all of that. Just think Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Ja is a common noun without a plural form. In life, if you’re lucky, you get (and need) only one. The word may be defined as: 1. Fortune. 2. Windfall 3. Mad riches like that 1/2  a billion Powerball pot-of-gold several months ago. But Unlike winning the lottery—immediately after being struck by lighting for the third time under the same tree—you would not know when, how, or where to take a chance on finding a ja.

Imagine inheriting an old house on several acres of so-so land from Aunt Agnes. The real-estate market suddenly takes off. Developers move in. You’re pretty confident the upswing will last forever. So, you take out twice the maximum possible mortgage on the property. Now, you’re facing foreclosure. You start to pack the few belongings your aunt had left in the old house, taking care not to break the spines of old photo albums you never had time to open. Underneath a loose floorboard you find a burlap bag full of rare coins worth millions. That might explain what a ja is. But not really.

With Haiti constantly changing, some might say the days of finding a ja might have gone the way of the ancestors. That may be true, but the word’s definition has become so dynamic that people are finding ja all the time. Rarely does a ja look like one. One man’s junk is another’s ja. You’ve heard stories of someone paying two dollars at a flea market for a dusty painting that turns out to be a Rembrandt. Whether or not a ja is considered a fortune depends on its finder. 

One of my favorite ja stories belongs to L.H. “I took my mother for somewhat of a hoarder,” L.H. had written on her Facebook page. While her mother was on vacation last Christmas, she took the opportunity to de-clutter. She nearly fainted with joy when she discovered the ja of rare books, many of them first editions by Haitian authors like Jacques “Masters of the Dew” Roumain. L.H. could not believe her fortune. Her friends were beyond thrilled. A few admitted to being a little jealous.

Around that time, I visited a relative who’s known for “saving” stuff. In a corner of the house was a cabinet bursting with old vinyl records. I could not believe what I saw. There were original (some signed) records by Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Ayizan, Michael Jackson, and too many others to mention. “You’ve got a real ja here,” I said.

“I know,” the owner gave a sly smile.

I was so giddy I photographed some of the album covers. I sent a picture to a guitarist friend of the now-defunct Haitian Roots band, Ayizan. “Where did you find this?” my friend wanted to know. He was so inspired that he decided to pick up his guitar after years of ignoring it. That was a double ja!


Searching my bookshelves for something inspiring to read this morning, I found a true treasure. The book’s cover is cracked and discolored, but the contents are like gold coins. The book is Edner A. Jeanty’s 999 Haitian Proverbs in Creole and English. Sure, most of these proverbs are available on the Web. Holding the book in my own hands, however, felt extra. . . rich.

I hope you had fun learning the word Ja. If you are a Haitian reading this, you knew I would have had a tough time trying to define it. If you have examples you would like to share, inbox them to Voices. I’ll be glad to post them here and on our Facebook page.

Bonheur et santé,


L.H.’s Book from her Ja of rare titles.

PS. I just went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. “Here’s a bunch of Haiti pictures,” My husband said, giving me a manila envelope. He had been emptying out an old bag of clothes that had been in the basement.  I had forgotten about those pictures. Among toothless cousins in Haiti who think they are so incredibly hot now, I find a picture of DJ One who had worked at Jean “The Agronomist” Léopold Dominique’s radio station. DJ One perished in the earthquake nearly three years ago. I wonder if and where there are other pictures of him today. I call that find a ja. Wouldn’t you?

Katia D. Ulysse