PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — His pack of Comme Il Faut cigarettes was almost depleted. The smell of rotting garbage on the street and fried pork from a stall next to his tent filled the air in Place St. Pierre. Some children looked at his crutch and grew silent. Beken, one of Haiti’s most gifted musicians, exhaled a veil of smoke.
“I should be in Miami living off the proceeds of my records,” said Beken, born here 54 years ago as Jean-Prosper Deauphin before adopting his stage name (pronounced Beck-ENN). “Instead I’m living in the filth of this place,” he said, summing up a predicament unbeknownst to many who revere his songs.
Haiti is astonishingly rich in music, with musicians who are more successful and famous than Beken, including the Port-au-Prince hip-hop group Barikad Crew and the protest singer Manno Charlemagne, who lives in the United States. But few composers occupy a space quite like Beken’s, whose songs of despair and redemption strongly resonate with Haitians during times of tragedy.
Peddlers sell pirated CD collections of his songs, including “Tribilasyon” (“Tribulation”) and “Mize” (“Misery”), on the streets of Port-au-Prince for about $1.30 apiece. Gritty photos of Beken, who lost his right leg at age 12 in a car accident, accompany the CDs. He sings in Haiti’s troubadour tradition, playing a guitar and emphasizing contact with the audience in songs of lament, humour and sometimes politics.
“Beken usually sold best after a hurricane,” said Jonas Gaspard, 25, a merchant selling bootleg music on a street near the wrecked presidential palace. “But since the earthquake, demand for his music is the strongest in years,” he said. “The customers love the way he sings about suffering.”
Beken knows a thing or two about life’s trials. Disabled as a child, he excelled in composing music. He enjoyed some success, particularly in the 1980s, when he travelled to play for Haitians abroad in New York, Montreal and Miami, before some bad decisions with his money pushed him into penury. He described himself as a “sentimental musician,” and said he had fallen in and out of love too many times to remember.
Then came the earthquake. It destroyed his home, pushing him and his wife and three children into one of the city’s most squalid camps, in the Petionville hills. They live in a tent across from the Kinam Hotel, a gingerbread-style mansion where foreign diplomats and aid workers sip rum sours on a porch overlooking a swimming pool.
Despite his reservoir of talent, Beken seemed to be on the edge of desperation in the tent camp. In a rare display of emotion among the often stoic inhabitants of this city’s camps, his eyes became watery and he appeared on the verge of weeping as he described how the earthquake had affected him.
“The only thing I can do is play music, and I haven’t touched my guitar since January 12,” he said. “I’d like to make a song about my school,” he said, referring to the St. Eternite school for disabled children, where several students died in the earthquake. “But I don’t think I have the strength to write songs at the moment.”
At dusk in front of his small tent, Beken begged off an appeal from some admirers that he play a song or two. “Come back another day,” he told them. “Maybe I’ll find my guitar.”
Other Haitian musicians are also having trouble finding their voices again. Richard Morse, leader of the popular group RAM, said he skipped composing a song for this year’s Carnival because he thought Haiti was not ready for celebration. Morse, who also manages the bohemian Hotel Oloffson, was evacuated on a military plane for treatment in the United States after being getting a kidney stone after the earthquake. At least seven musicians in his 18-member band are living on the street, their homes destroyed.
“We’ll perform again, but I’m not sure when that will be,” Morse said.
Beken says he draws inspiration from other Haitian balladeers like Rodrigue Milien, part of a folk tradition that blends acoustic Cuban and Haitian influences.
“This is a beloved role in Haitian expressive culture, the honest but sometimes dissolute social commentator through music,” said Gage Averill, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Toronto.
one recent evening, Beken had found his guitar, taking it to a small open-air cafe in Petionville called Break-Time, where people were eating bouillon tet cabrit (goat-head soup) and nursing bottles of cold Prestige beer.
Break-Time’s owner welcomed Beken and got him a chair near the bar. Beken asked for a Marlboro cigarette, which he slowly smoked as he strummed his guitar. Then he began to sing, in Creole, old favorites like “Ambisyon,” “Patience” and a passage from “Imiliasyon”:
“For you little peasant working in the fields;
“The rain never falls;
“This will change one day!”
Suddenly, people in the cafe began singing with him. The lyrics seemed familiar to everyone, as if embedded in a place reserved for memories of what life was like before the earthquake wrecked the city. The crowd was singing about suffering, and perhaps forgetting about suffering at the same time.
“Beken should be a rich man but he is not,” said Joseph Guyler Delva, a Haitian journalist in the audience who was one of several people to embrace Beken between songs.
Beken himself had a look of surprise, and something approaching delight, as he performed that night. He returned to his tent amid the stench of Place St. Pierre clutching his guitar. “I can sing again,” he said. “Maybe that means I can write a new song.”