Although still playing their residency gigs at the Hotel Oloffson, jamming with the likes of Arcade Fire, in Port-au-Prince and playing live throughout the world, the mizak-rasin (a style that combines traditional Haitian Vodou with folkloric and rock and roll music) powerhouse RAM, have remained absent from the recording studio for the past decade. In the tumultuous world of Haitian politics, the infamous and legendary RAM have managed to survive despite their synonymous protestations against the military junta that seized power during the early 90s, and subsequent leaders: As Morse himself puts it, “Our existence is a political statement”. Death threats and sabotage almost derailed the band on numerous occasions during the last twenty-five years, yet they remain stoic and ever critical of the government, taking up musical arms with the much put-upon population: disheveled and hit with devastating natural terrors such as the 2010 earthquake; served by a continuation of corruptible and shaky governments.
Named after the initials of their road well travailed founder Richard A. Morse, RAM perform an entrancing spectacle of the ritualistic. Morse, originally born in Puerto Rica but brought up in Connecticut, spent the 80s rubbing shoulders with the polygenesis New York art and music scene’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol’s factory. His interest piqued by the new wave’s adoption of Afro-diaspora rhythms and world music (see Brian Eno and Talking Heads), Morse decided to travel to his native homeland to study the Haitian sound.
The son of Haiti folk legend Emerante de Pradine, Morse was already well aware of his ancestral roots, but had yet to indulge in or absorb the rich history of the island fully. After an initial short trip, Morse found himself it seems so seduced and inspired by Haiti’s culture that he decided to stay for good. Marrying local dancer and singer Lunise, he kick started the frenzied, rambunctious RAM, channeling the ideas he picked up on in New York and merging them with the signature instrumentation and sounds of the local Vodou belief and the drifting currents of the Caribbean and Africa. It would be a local and then international hit, with Morse’s band even lending a song to the Tom Hanks starring Philadelphia film soundtrack. But despite the success, Morse withdrew back further into the Haitian psyche, and started singing in the local dialect, Kreyol.
Back then after a hiatus, RAM once again take up the peoples struggle on their new album; a record whose feverish and yearning rhythms fall congruously into “two families”: as Morse points out, “The drums with turning pegs are from Africa. Haitian rhythms are played on drums that don’t have pegs. They are tuned with cords and string, and are indigenous inspired.”
Hurtling into a blurting saxophone punctuated stonk, RAM almost trip over the speeding rhythms on the opening ‘Papa Loko (Se Van)’. And later on they repeat this storming of the barricades with the equally freefalling, saxophone harassed Ethnio-jazz and Ska frenzied ‘M’prai Dòmi Nan Simityè’ – a song dedicated to the top hat-sporting spirits of death, life and procreation. Elsewhere the album is stripped off its ferocity, replaced by gentler island breezes and ambling sweet West African highlife. ‘Koulou Koulou’ is a perfect example of this; the hymn like soothing Kreyol vocals of Lunise wafting over a sauntering highlife backing. Or on the disarming plaintive ballad ‘Ogou Oh’, which begins with a Popol Vuh like soothing but venerable piano and later breaks out into a tribal drumming ritual.
Constantly moving, transforming often-complex interplay with transcontinental imbued high energy and the local carnival spirit, RAM combine their activism and messages of hope and struggle with a strong evocative and infectious groove. Manman M Se Ginen is a beguiling and infectious album, full of tradition but electrified for a contemporary audience.