Markus Schwartz Photo by Tequila Minsky
Master percussionist and bona fide tanbourinè, Markus Schwartz, reflects on his own private Haiti and his relationship with “the oldest instrument after the human voice.”
Markus was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, but a part of him is deeply rooted in Haitian culture. In English or in impeccable Kreyòl, he is direct and unpretentious. He speaks with reverence for the instrument he spent the last two decades studying. Although he has performed and recorded with top Haitian artists Beethova Obas, Emeline Michel, and Wyclef Jean, Markus always refers to himself as a student.
Of his first introduction to the tanbou, Markus says: “I don’t think anything happens by chance. In West African tradition, they might call it Fa. Your life has a map. It’s not an unalterable course, but I do believe certain things are placed in your path either to help you achieve your goals or to help move you from one period of your life to another.”
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“Basket Woman” by Mirlande Jean-Gilles
My earliest memories are of being in Haiti and of freedom. I was four years old and I was allowed to walk alone to visit other family members and friends who lived nearby. I could travel farther if I was with one of the other kids. We spent all day outside, playing, hiding, running, chasing, tagging. We were the original recyclers: dried mango seeds were dolls. Plastic bottles with bottle caps became trucks with wheels. We even used cleaned goat bones as jacks.
There was a covered front porch where we played when it rained. One stormy day I was out there alone, waiting for my aunt to come home. Through the curtain of rain I saw the terrible Tonton Macoute- not the gangsters, but the fabled old man monster who carried children away in a sack. He ambled down the street with a huge, screaming, writhing bag over one shoulder. I was frozen in fear and hypnotized by his eyes. Before he could grab me, I saw my aunt coming down the street; her bright white uniform glowed. She broke the spell and I zoomed to her. When we were back on the porch, the monster was not there. That experience is in a place where reality and myth mesh. Was it a story told to me or was it real? I don’t know. But it was vivid enough to stay in my memory.
I remember laughter. I remember music. I remember love. The adults gathered around the outdoor cooking fire to talk politics, gossip, and maybe play dominoes. My aunts and grandmother cooked delicious meals, both outdoors and in the kitchen. I remember Haiti as a place where your neighbor is your family. This is the richness I remember—the eternal legacy of an island with treasures untold.
See Mirlande’s work at www.aziarts.com
Every day we have the opportunity to learn, the chance to be plucked from our familiar pool and taken into the unknown. But what do we do when we find ourselves in new and uncharted water? Do we quickly swim back? Do we observe? Or do we allow yourself to become moved?
Until about five years ago I didn’t know any Haitians. I knew nothing of the mango groves and the breadfruit trees. I didn’t know that umbilical stumps represented more than stem cell research. Is Haitian Creole even a real language? In my mind’s file cabinet of random facts, Haiti had been in a dingy manila folder labeled: “Poorest Country. . .”
This changed when I met my Haitian friend while making the rounds with a neighborhood jogging group. I didn’t know much about her, other than that she ran with the spirit of a cheetah and the speed of a deer. Over time, my friend has plucked me out of my familiar current and introduced me to new waters. Since then, there have been many notes and edits to that dingy manila folder with the words Poorest Country scribbled on it.
The small jogging group of three became a group of four with the addition of our new friend, and eventually our neighborhood trots turned into marathon training runs. On a chilly morning in October my Haitian friend joined us at the marathon starting line. She was wearing a black lightweight jacket bearing the flag of Haiti on her back. The running group and I chatted about which mile we would allow ourselves to walk rather than run, which hill would be the hardest, what our estimated finishing times would be, and in which neighborhood the gummy bear would be offered to runners. It became clear that my Haitian friend wasn’t considering any of this.
When she talked about what was on her mind, she simply stated: “Walk or run, I will finish the race, and the flag on my back will never touch the ground.”
It became clear that she was running for something greater than a personal record. Her race was symbolic of endurance, courage, commitment, and pride.
This was my first real introduction to Haiti.