“Music is the language of the soul,” Monvelyno Alexis says. “I want to speak it as well as I possibly can. I want to have a conversation with people who want to understand.”
Monvelyno’s quest to speak the language of the soul took him to Soukri, Badjo, Souvnans: “Temples of Haiti’s musical legacy from our African ancestors,” he says. The temples unlocked Monvelyno’s hidden potential and cleared new paths for creativity. The idea of Kòd ak Po (Strings & Skins) originated from conversations with vodun clerics and studies of their rituals and spiritual songs.
Monvelyno admits it will time to try to fit those ideas into an original rendition of Haitian music, but he’s busy trying to make that happen.
I spoke with Monvelyno recently. Here’s how our conversation went:
Katia D. Ulysse: I like the name Monvelyno. How did it become yours?
Monvelyno Alexis: 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 we never quite settled down. We continued to move 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 the place where I really 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 guitar–as an instrument–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 instrument with which to express my thoughts and emotions. It’s different with the conga. The 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 seems to be lost. They don’t seem to know what Haiti is really about. 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 upcoming musicians in Haiti 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. 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 hardly invests in the arts. They don’t value artists. I became what I am because of the great people I had around 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.
Katia: Are you saying that it’s 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 alone. We were, we are, and we will be a beautiful country. I carry that truth with me. I try to express it in my music.
Katia: When did you come to the States?
Katia: In Haiti they call those of us who live outside the island a “Dyas.” How do you feel about that term?
Monvelyno: Dyas is a negative term in my mind. Those of us who carry the culture with us are more like ambassadors. It is true that when certain people get here, 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, for now, I have to be here. I can’t really function in my country as a musician. But whenever I am there, I create like crazy. When I’m home I can compose at least 20 songs in just as many days. Haiti is that powerful. If your mind and heart are in the right place, it fills you with creativity.
Katia: I agree. When I’m in Haiti something in the ground reaches through me and fills me with creativity.
Katia: You said earlier that as a musician in Haiti you were hunted and not safe. Do you think that’s the reason 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, Shakira. They want Haiti to turn into the US. Most of them 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 the music’s 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—are just trying to make a living.
Monvelyno: Sure, money is great. If I played with those guys, I know I’d make 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. We all have to eat.
Katia: Speaking of food: When you’re hungry, do you want hamburger or 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 to cook?
Monvelyno: My mother.
Katia: What else did your mother teach you?
Monvelyno: My mother taught 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, necessary, and important.
Katia: Where is your mother 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: What are some of your thoughts about the rebuilding efforts in Haiti today? 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 in any way. 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 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 could 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 yourself, what would it be?
Monvelyno: If I could back to Haiti right now to live..
If you would like to learn more Monvelyno and his concert schedule, check out Reverbnation. Support his music by actually buying his songs, not copying them from some guy/gal who copied it from another guy;-) Ah. . . you know what I mean!