There's a gravity to Régeléman that becomes immediately deepened and explicable when you realise that the Haitian singer is being religious.
Erol Josué is a vodou priest. This is far from being a secret. Every article about him mentions it, and Régléman's press kit revolves around it. "At age 17, Josué was initiated as a houngan, or vodou priest. Josué's mother is a vodou priestess and his late father … was a vodou priest." After a while this vodou priest vodou priest vodou priest business starts to feel like a prompt. A little man in a box in the wings is poking us with a long cane. He hisses. "Psst! You know what we're talking about -- that album. The vodou priest one! By that man! The vodou priest man!"
As it turns out this is actually a help. There's a gravity to Régléman that becomes immediately deepened and explicable when you realise that the Haitian singer is being religious. This kind of information does change things. The Hallelujah Chorus wouldn't sound the same if you thought that hallelujah was a brand of canned peas. Or: it would sound the same, but you'd understand it differently. And vodou (or voodoo, or however you'd like to spell it) is a religion that could do with some widespread rehabilitating.
Voodoo Devil Drums. (1944) "She was doomed to die! See -- for the first time -- the virgin dance of death! The altar of skulls! The walking death! Strange secrets never before revealed!"
Voodoo Tiger (1952): "Voodoo Vengeance Runs Riot!"
Curse of the Voodoo (1964): "Jungle Terror! Native Fury! Blood sacrifice of the Simbai!"
Voodoo Heartbeat (1975): "SERUM OF SATAN - One drop ... and a raging monster is unleashed to kill ... and kill again in an unending lust for blood!"
Voodoo (1995): "Life is Full of Sacrifices."
Voodoo Lagoon (2006): "Paradise can be Hell."
(Witness also: the voodoo story in Dr Terror's House of Horrors, voodoo used as an excuse for mad scientist-type antics and zombies wearing face cereal in I Eat Your Skin (which was titled Voodoo Blood Bath until they decided to put it on a double bill with I Drink Your Blood, a movie about killer hippies), and Bela Lugosi using his magic powers to keep kidnapped women in a state of suspended animation under his house in Voodoo Man.)
The music on Régléman is so beautiful and the presentation so hip and nonchalantly pretty that it makes the zombie-slave blood-of-satan notions of vodou look even more cartoonish than they already do. The CD case contains the dedication to God that, totem-like, accompanies so many U.S. albums on their journey into the world, but this time the god is "Olorum, master of the universe, creator of the four elements." After that, Josué thanks his fellow musicians, his mum, his brothers and sisters, his granny, his dad, his stepdad, his niece Emeraude Esperanta who "brought sunshine into our lives." It's all very normal, and a million miles away from the altar of skulls, the virgin dance of death, and raging monsters unleashed to kill and kill again in an unending lust for blood. It may not make you like the album any more or any less, but it's interesting to know that Josué has his hand over one eye on the album cover because he does this before he begins a ceremony ("I always touch my eyes to go down into my soul to be open and ready for my spirit"), and that the album opens with singing and percussion because vodou ceremonies do, too ("a conversation between Hounto, the spirit of the drum, and Legba, the god of wisdom, who opens the gates for all the spirits to enter the ceremony").
Musically, the album takes many of its cues from Afropop. There are traces of Angélique Kidjo in here, and doses of Boukman Eksperyans, a Haitian roots-rock success story that released its first album in 1991. Josué, like Boukman and other racine musicians, makes a point of emphasising Haiti's connections to Africa, particularly Benin, the source of vodou -- and the source of Kidjo as well, although I think any similarities between him and her have more to do with her status as an African-born pop artist with international reach than they do the country she was born to. As a musician from a quasi-African culture trying to get a message across, it's natural that he should look to someone else who has had triumphs of her own in roughly the same area.
It seems strange to me that I like this album, because a lot of the Afropop that appears in the world music section -- the kind that seem predestined for the world music section, as this does -- often seems tame or dated, the result of a musician trying to please too many people at once, or the work of someone who has never realised that there is more to western music than the blandest songs on the radio. Afro-freakfolk, where art thou? The word alone -- "Afropop" -- makes me growl and shudder. As soon as I hear it I think that I'm up for an encounter with Blandie McBland. Yet Régléman is undeniably part of that undistinguished family. And I do not hate it. Why?
Well, for one, Josué, who currently lives in New York, has had his antennae out and he's been listening to music other than the top 40. . The percussion in that opening song, "Hounto Legba", includes a scuzzily metallic thumb-piano that is the living spit of Konono No. 1. Electronic noises swell darkly in "Yege Dahomen" as if the song has been remixed by Lamb. A multi-tracked chanting old woman on "Balize" folds herself into samba lounge-jazz with Josué's voice moving in twists over the top, while a faint psychedelic tingle in the background of "Madam Letan" suggests that magical mystery tours are about to start. The song spins along at a merry-go-round bob. All of this has the effect of making the album seem mutable and borderline weird: it's neither strange nor conventional but some odd, exciting hybrid. Régléman sounds similar to a lot of other things without fundamentally being like them.
There's something about his singing, too, a measured passion, an elegance that gives the album an unfaltering flow. It redeems songs that might, in other mouths, have been maudlin or far too mealy-nice. The voice on its own is good, generous, tuneful, not brilliant -- no Salif Keita he -- but there's a dignity in him that makes Régléman beautiful in a way that is difficult to define. It's a flexible dignity too, nothing stuffy, no evangelism despite the album's religious impetus. As a vodou ambassador he's done his work marvellously. Régléman is an ambitious success. Go, listen.