[9 April 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
South-Florida based Haitian artist Jan Sebon arrived in Miami, in 1981 when he as 22 years old. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT)
MIAMI—Musician and poet Jan Sebon has lost many things in his life: use of his legs, the chance to be raised by his parents, as well as his country, Haiti—or at least the Haiti of his hopes.
Visiting last July, he hardly recognized the place he still thinks of as home: The chaos, the sense of danger, the nine families sharing the Port-au-Prince house where he and his family once lived.
“Everything has become degraded,” says Sebon, who came to Miami in 1981 when he was 22, fearing for his life after the arrest of fellow activists opposed to the regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. “Every problem we were fighting for, it has gotten worse.”
Now, when he thinks of Haiti, it is as a dream state: “When I talk about Haiti, I think it is like a mythical land, like it doesn’t exist anymore,” says Sebon, 49. “It only exists in my mind.”
And in his music, his poetry and his identity. Since the mid 1980s, when he co-founded the Haitian music, dance and poetry group Koleksyon Kazak, Sebon, a musician, songwriter, poet, teacher and activist, has been one of the most visible proponents of Haitian culture in Miami.
This Saturday he will present “Peyi Mwen (My Country),” a multimedia music piece that is his most ambitious artistic effort. Although Sebon has been part of numerous other performances, including the 1997 percussion work “Drummin’” and Teo Castellanos’ hip-hop theater piece “Scratch & Burn,” this will be his first major solo piece. It will occupy half of an evening called “Caribbean Crossroads,” which he shares with the Curacao songwriter Chin Behilia at Colony Theater in Miami Beach.
“Peyi Mwen” promises to be a major step forward in Sebon’s creative quest to re-create the Haiti of his dreams. Even as he has raised a family and established a place for himself in South Florida, his tortured country continues to pull at him.
“It makes me feel I don’t have any place to go,” Sebon (real name Michelot Barlatier) says in Creole-accented English. “I am an American citizen. But the place you were born always stays with you.”
This performance is overdue, says Mary Luft, director of Tigertail Productions, which is presenting the show. “He’s interested in taking his ideas and music to other places and making those crossovers. He has a greater vision, a larger vision, than just himself in Miami,” Luft says.
People who know Sebon invariably talk about his determination and gentleness in the face of a life with plenty of opportunity for bitterness. “I don’t remember ever seeing him mad,” says Teo Castellanos, who has worked with Sebon for 20 years. “I’ve seen him disappointed. And then he’s just ... accepting, I guess.”
But that does not mean he gives up, says Kiki Wainwright, co-founder of the Haitian cultural group Societe Koukouy. “As an artist or as a man, the first word that comes to my mind is he is a fighter,” he says. “We in the Haitian community struggle with everything. So he is part of that struggle.”
Sebon’s struggle started early, at 2, when he got polio. It left his legs bent and weak. But it also pushed him toward the imaginative inner worlds of art and writing.
“I had to stay in the house, and I would get bored,” Sebon says. “I didn’t think it was hard. I tried to do everything other kids were doing.” When other children mockingly imitated his lurching walk, his grandmother said: “If you teach them things, they probably walk like you for real one day.”
His grandmother and aunt raised Sebon; he didn’t meet his mother until he came to Miami. His father, who left Haiti when Sebon was 5, worked as a truck driver in the Bahamas and then South Florida, sending money back to support his eight children with Sebon’s mother. They were well-off by Haitian standards. “We were not rich, but we could eat,” Sebon says. “But when my father lose his job, we go hungry like the other kids.”
In high school he began to write poetry and plays, to read leftist books and to become involved in politics—the last sending him into exile in Miami in 1981.
In South Florida, Sebon found freedom from political oppression and opportunity, attending Miami Dade College and then managing a graphic-design studio for 20 years. But he also found prejudice and animosity.
In Castellanos’ play “NE Second Avenue,” a Haitian character whom Sebon helped create tells of hearing an American boy call another “Haitian” as an insult, and muses “I never knew I was a (expletive) Haitian `til I got to Miami.” It was something that happened to Sebon.
That charged atmosphere inspired him to start Koleksyon Kazak, which performed African-influenced music and dance rooted in the religion and culture of Vodou, with songs written in Haitian Creole rather than French. Founded in 1985, Kazak was part of a broader movement of racine, or roots, culture that emphasized pride in the country’s African heritage and traditional peasant culture.
“There were a lot of problems then, kids who don’t want to call themselves Haitian,” Sebon says. “By doing this we show that we are not just dirty refugees, but that we have a culture.” For “Peyi Mwen” he composed a song called “Pe La! (Shut Up!),” addressed to the media and its stream of bad news about Haiti.
As much as Haiti inspires Sebon, it also leaves him ambivalent and frustrated. Although he passionately espouses Haitian culture, he seems depressed about its future.
“There is a sadness in his work,” says Gina Cunningham, a filmmaker who has made documentary films about Haiti and has known Sebon for 18 years. “He is disappointed in the place he comes from.”
But Sebon still draws power from his homeland. “The culture he comes from is very resilient and has an upbeat vibe, even though it comes from a place with a lot of pain,” Cunningham says. “So he represents his culture in that way, because he’s optimistic and pokes fun at himself in the midst of tragedy.”
By the early 1990s Koleksyon Kazak started to tour and even received an offer from a record label run by Peter Gabriel. But by the mid-1990s, the group’s co-founder, lead performer and driving force, Boulou—Sebon’s closest friend—began to suffer from schizophrenia, and the group split. “When I perform I still see his image and feel him around,” Sebon says.
In 1996 Sebon also separated from his wife of 11 years, with whom he has four children. In recent years post-polio syndrome has caused pain and further weakened his legs. Although he got custody of his children in 2001, and continued to play music, he became depressed.
He mourned the losses in his life: his country; his mother, who died two years after Sebon arrived in Miami; an adopted son who rejected him and is now in jail; a brother who died, and a sense of guilt at not having been able to do more for any of them.
“Everything come back—what happen to my country, the fact that I never live with my mother and father, all the things that are missing,” he says. “I find out I don’t know how to relate to my own kids.”
But he found his way out. He gave up smoking and drinking, which were hurting his singing and his health and keeping him holed up in his room. He began practicing Buddhism with Castellanos. He began to play a guitar and to write songs on it. And he poured much of what he has been thinking about Haiti into “Peyi Mwen,” for which he got a $9,000 grant.
His oldest daughter, 24, is in college in Atlanta. The other three children live with him in Miami Springs in a house by the airport. Planes roar overhead and the fixtures are shabby, but the street is tree-lined and safe. His son Michelet, 22, works in a restaurant. Daughters Inez, 16, and Michnique, 14, attend the Design and Architecture Senior High School and sing with their father (they will perform in “Peyi Mwen”).
At a rehearsal last week in a tiny North Miami studio with the girls and guitarist Bemol Telfort, a former Koleksyon Kazak member, the mood and the music were mostly happy. The girls sang sweet harmony on “Jwi La Mim (Enjoy My Life)” and “Peyi Mwen,” clapping and drumming to their father’s guitar. “What’s happening?” they called out in Creole, and answered, “We’re cool!”
“I’m trying to let my music take people now, more than hard politics,” Sebon says.
And that will have to be enough. “I probably feel guilty, but I am not ashamed, because everywhere I go I say `I’m Haitian,’” he says. “All Haitians in our hearts are proud to be the first free black independent nation. But that’s only the past. We have to know what’s in our future.”
Imagining that future, wherever it may be, still inspires him. “You can take the Haitian out of Haiti, but you can’t take Haiti out of a Haitian. That’s what keeps us living.”