Paris-based singer and guitarist Mélissa Laveaux’s new album was inspired by her return to Haiti last year for the first time since she was 12 years old, and with this guiding her, she’s shaped a distinctly traditional yet incredibly contemporary and original set of songs. Infused with traditional Creole and refrains of English, Laveaux has created an easily accessible, highly enticing album.
Laveaux explores the issue that many young immigrants grapple with – feeling like both a stranger and a local in their country of origin. Now more than ever, there is a rush to celebrate personal identity, and Radyo Siwèl does just that. The mixture of hip-hop, soul, indie rock and traditional folk song is really something to be admired – it’s never overwhelming, and consistently enthralling.
Opening track “Lè Ma Monte Chwal Mwen” is, as Laveaux explains, “a traditional vodou folk song I heard as a child on Martha Jean-Claude’s “Canciones de Haiti”.” Laveaux was particularly affected by the music of Haitian singer Martha Jean-Claude, who was imprisoned (whilst pregnant) due to the militancy of her songs, eventually fleeing to Cuba in exile. This re-working of Jean-Claude’s original work is a stunning opener. “The title of the song means when I’m riding my horse,” Laveaux explains. “In a vodou ceremony, when someone is possessed by a spirit, they are that spirit’s horse and the spirit is riding them. It’s also a reference to how vodou is, at times, very erotic.”
Indeed, most of Laveaux’s album sounds more than romantic, often erotic and strangely sexy. Her song “Nan Fon Bwa” is a celebratory party song, another reworking, this time of Frantz Casséus’ original composition. Laveaux’s multiple inspirations are very interesting and certainly important, but not necessary to know to simply get the feel and power of this album – she’s shown the listener how music transcends any barriers, especially those of language.
“Jolibwa” is particularly exciting. The continuous drum beats are contrasted with inflections of minor notes which gives the song a key “melodramatic” tone, as Laveaux explains: “Jolibois was a journalist who was imprisoned because of his criticisms of the occupation and was murdered in custody. I wanted this song to be a bit of a jive because we Haitians tend to be melodramatic, but we do it in style. I can imagine people protesting outside of the prison Jolibois was being kept in, while looking and dancing in a very cool way”. The contemporary rhythms, which almost have elements of trip-hop, make this a stand out song.
It is hard to believe this album was recorded over just five days. The sweet and stimulating guitar and cuatro of Drew Gonsalves, leader of Trinidadian band Kobo Town, must be applauded, and the French production team A.L.B.E.R.T. have done a beautiful job mixing and producing the album so quickly yet with such precision.
Laveaux’s voice is captivating and is in itself a dance. This album encompasses the word soul – both in genre and in personal terms. It’s steeped in Haitian history, it’s an exploration, an education, and a hugely personal accomplishment. Radyo Siwèl is an album for those who are lost in their identity, with Laveaux showing how it is always possible to find your roots again.