Matt Smith hosting "Okombosi," a world music show.
At the tender age of 31, Dr. Matthew Smith, who holds a PhD in History from the University of Florida, is a leading scholar of Haitian history in Jamaica where he is often asked to offer his expertise on Haiti beyond the University of West Indies (UWI)campus where he teaches. In fact, during the brouhaha that shook Jamaica when the country housed exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last year, local media repeatedly asked Dr. Smith to dig up Jamaica's long history of housing exiled Haitian Presidents. If you're not envious yet, he also speaks fluent French and Haitian Creole, is a Bob Marley expert and deejays a world music show in his spare time...
Teaching Haitian History to Jamaicans
Alice says -- So you are Jamaican born and raised and you currently teach at University of West Indies, Mona in Kingston. How and why did you become a scholar of Haiti?
Matt says -- My interest in Haiti like many before me and hopefully after me, began with my reading of CLR James' The Black Jacobins. The book transformed my life. Here I was a young high school student in Jamaica, close to Haiti, and knowing so little of this history. My fascination with Haiti developed instantly. Then with Dr. David Geggus as my supervisor at the doctoral level, it gave me the opportunity to fulfill my long dream of delving deeply into haitian history. Since then I' ve done quite a bit of work on various aspects of contemporary Haitian history, particularly political history, and immigration history and the fascination only grows more and more...
Alice says -- How many other Jamaican scholars of Haiti do you know of who like you teach Haitian history in Jamaica?
Matt says -- None.
Alice says -- How does that make you feel?
Matt says --Well it does make me feel like I do have a strong mandate which I do take seriously, to try and encourage Jamaican students to develop a strong sense of the Caribbean and Haiti particularly as part of their own history. To be fair, there have been senior professors who have done a magnificent job in Haitian studies from right here in Jamaica. Professor Carl Campbell, though not a scholar of Haiti, did encourage an upper division History course on Haiti which has been going on for many many years now, and of course Michael Dash has made some incredible contributions to Haitian studies from right here in Jamaica where he worked for several years. Marie-Jose Nzengou-Tayo, who is Haitian does teach a course in Haitian literature. So there have been pioneers before me. However, this has not really translated into a new generation as strongly as one would have hoped. There is still a strong resentment toward Haiti that is muddled with general confusion. This confusion and misinterpretation is surprisingly well ingrained among students here. I say suprising given the striking similarities between Haiti and Jamaica and the closeness of the countries, etc.
Alice says -- How do you manage to teach your class?
Matt says -- I begin all my classes on Haiti here by spending time on the myths. Surveying the students and asking them what they think of Haiti. What is it that impresses them and what is it that they don't like or understand. Invariably I get several of the much-repeated stereotypes but what is most apparent is just a deep ignorance. So my job is to get beyond all of that with them. Remove their biases and begin to make them see Haiti differently before we can proceed to examine the history.
Debunking Stereotypes on the UWI Campus
Alice says -- So what are some of the stereotypes of Haiti that you discuss with your students on the first day of class?
Matt says -- We look first at Haitian culture. Try to understand its various dimensions. This is fairly easy I find for Jamaican students as there are some notable similarities. The mixture of peoples, the history of migration, and the social structures. I also emphasise the connections between Haiti and Jamaica which helps to get students a little more comfortable to the topic. For instance, there were over a dozen Haitian presidents who sought refuge in Jamaica at some point or another. And of course we have had our own recent experience with Haitians in Jamaica which is a good starting point to explain to students the links between the two. From there I move into their own preconceived notions of Haiti. I must say that while students here do have a certain stereotype of vodou it isn't a primary one on their list which I suspect is somewhat different from the US case. More important to them is the view of Haiti being doomed to cyclical patterns of political instability. I try to let them know that it isn't as if the country was born two hundred and one years ago and been entirely suffering ever since. That even if one wants to hold to this view one would first have to examine the various periods of Haitian history to find out what it is that has accounted for this. So that gets them interested. I also show clips of documentary footage on Haiti that shows scenes and people that look like Jamaica and look like them. Music videos are always helpful here and students seem to like the images and the humour and begin to see Haiti differently before we get into the history. So these things help.
Alice says --What music videos do you show?
Matt says --Some of the rasin music videos paint a different view of vodou than what they expect. Then some of the compas and hip hop videos with the bling bling also resonates with them . . . I once showed a clip of a T-vice video and a student remarked " I didnt know they had white people in Haiti!" . . . I also screen a Haitian film at the end of the semester which I usually open to the general public. We've screened The Agronomist and "Haitian Corner" in the past. I usually change it around to keep it interesting. "The Agronomist" was well received here.
Alice says -- Why is that do you think?
Matt says -- I think "The Agronomist" resonated with Jamaicans because they saw in Jean Dominique someone who was fighting against formidable odds. But also they see this happening in a Caribbean setting. So although the dynamics are so different the setting isn't that far removed. I mean here in Jamaica we have problems too and though they are quite different there is a frequent remark radio talk show hosts and many people love to say "we're becoming just like Haiti." One politican in explaining the failures of the 1970s famously commented "we were looking for Utopia and instead we found Haiti." So even though this is a negative stereotype and highly prejudiced it does demonstrate that Haiti does figure into conceptions of politics and political failures right here in Jamaica. Also, the Feb 2004 coup and the exile of Aristide here gave the film greater relevance and currency to Jamaicans.
The "Revolution" of 1946: All Eyes on Haiti in a Different Era
"During those years Haiti was the fulcrum of activity in the Caribbean. Remember, this is before the Cuban Revolution and decolonization in the rest of the Caribbean, and even before the Civil Rights movement took off in the US."
Alice says -- You wrote your doctoral thesis on post-occupation, pre-Papa Doc Haiti, right?
Matt says--My doctoral thesis was entitled, "Shades of Red in A Black Republic: Radicalism, Black Consciousness and Social Conflict in Postoccupation Haiti, 1934-1957." It examined the history of what is perhaps the most overlooked period in twentieth century Haiti, the period following the US occupation. My attraction to this period came from a reading of the available sources in Haiti and elsewhere and being disappointed with how it was handled. There was such hope in Haiti during those years and much of the ideas and tensions discussed were decades ahead of their time. During those years Haiti was the fulcrum of activity in the Caribbean. Remember, this is before the Cuban Revolution and decolonization in the rest of the Caribbean, and even before the Civil Rights movement took off in the US. During those years the attention of the Black world was on Haiti and it made for an incredibly dramatic period.
Matt says -- Added to all of this, was the rise of some of the most important leaders not only in Haiti but I would venture to say in the entire Caribbean that have been left as mere footnotes in the annals of history. Jacques Roumain (though better known than most), Daniel Fignolé, Jacques-Stephen Alexis, René Depestre, Estimé and scores of others (including, for better or worse, Duvalier himself). All of this occured in these formative years that would shape a lot in Haiti. In fact, the entire history of the country up until that point was called into question during the post-occupation years. The extent to which the actors of this era failed is left up to historians and subsequent generations to judge. However, there was a commitment to the country among some, and a powerful sense of nationalism that was alluring to me once I began to get into the archival materials. So this was what I did. I used radicalism as a prism to understanding the entire period as I viewed it as such.
Alice says --Interesting. I did get a chance to hear your talk on Daniel Fignole, no doubt a highly under-researched figure. Michel Rolph Trouillot does seem to delve into that post-occupation period to explain Duvalier in his great book Haiti: State against Nation and he talks about Fignole in relation to Duvalier a little bit ...
Matt says --Yes he does. Trouillot, David Nicholls and Michel Hector have shed much light on this period and emphasised its importance to the Duvalier period. However, the true history of the period is not told. We are left with various images, myths even of some of the people of the period and the reasons why certain actions were taken. For instance, the very election of Estimé in 1946 is not fully examined nor the reasons for Fignolé's virulent opposition. What I tried to do was to strip away the stereotypes and try and present as fair an interpretation of the events during those years as I could. In the end, I learnt things about many of these figures, and many others besides those in the limelight, that both impressed and shocked me. But all of it demonstrated just how complicated the period was and deepened my understanding of Haitian political development.
Alice says --Which of your findings shocked you?
Matt says --Perhaps it was discovering the backdoor dealings and political malversations that took place during the era. The ideas of 1946 were strong ideas. They were very real ideas and still relevant: to end class and colour prejudice in Haiti. A lot of people went through tremendous sacrifices for this. Only to have these ideals dashed once Haitian realpolitik set in. Someone like Fignolé, a very controversial figure no doubt. But it is hard to disregard Fignolé's tireless fighting with MOP and his many attempts toward improving basic standards for Haitian workers. True he was sometimes drunk on his own popularity, but the very idea of a labour organization that fought to remain independent was a first in Haiti. One of the projects I am currently working on is a proper study of Fignolé and MOP.
Alice says --Trouillot offers several explanations for the 1946 Revolution including certain staffing policies during the occupation as well as the rise by then of black urban educated elites who needed some representation. How do you explain it?
Matt says --The 1946 "revolution" was the result of several factors. It is difficult to state one main reason. It was a mixture of both local and international issues. Class and colour issues were very much at the centre of it. But don't forget, it was sons of the bourgeoisie who initiated it. Depestre, Bloncourt, et al were among a fairly privileged sector in Haiti. What they did was motivated by a strong leftist-oriented view. They were very astute and looking around the world found much promise in ideas of socialism and communism, broadly defined. But I don't think even they could have predicted in January 1946 the direction that the country would take. They didn't realize that they were taking the safety valve off of a situation threatening to explode for some time. Now, once this occured the deep-standing tensions among classes and colours in Haiti surfaced. But this was also a result of a general resentment for Lescot who had, through a combination of naivety and complacency, let things swell up in ways that he couldn't even appreciate. Once this happened it meant that all hell would break lose which is exactly what happened.
Matt says -- But it was not the type of conflict one sees now in Haiti. What was different was that there were parties that emerged for the first time, along with newspapers for the first time, that had very determined and ideologically driven arguments that took a long view of Haiti. In that view, it was not only Lescot and his government that was held culpable but generations before him as well as even the United States and their current role in Haiti.
Matt says -- Yes, the US occupation and its staffing policies were blamed but this is an explanation that has evolved long after 1946. What was more important to Haitian radicals of the period was the recent failures of US-Haitian relations: SHADA, poor economic policies, etc. It was a shame what Haiti had to endure during the late Lescot years and this situation not only weakened Haiti's hold on the state, but also reflected a longer pattern of US-Haitian relations that continue to our own time. So, there are several interlocking reasons for what happened in 1946 and the complexity and fast pace of what happened that year demands that we see it as such and not give into the temptation of easy answers.
Matt Smith with David Hinds of Steel Pulse
How do you explain your obsession with Haitian music and with Haiti in general? I mean you even speak creole and french, how many other Jamaicans who are not of Haitian descent speak creole?
The Deejay Professor
Alice says -- In addition to teaching, you also host a radio program in Jamaica that focuses on music from the world. I understand it's the only show that plays Haitian music in Jamaica. Tell us more about that.
Matt says -- I make it a point of duty to include a Haitian song in almost every setlist I prepare and feature Haitian music and artists as much as I can including tribute shows to some of the greats like Ti-Manno, Nemours Jean-Baptiste, Boukman Eksperyans etc. We last had a tribute show to Issa El Saieh. Through the radio show I've managed to interview some of the musicians I've always admired like Jimmy Cliff and David Hinds from Steel Pulse.
Alice says --Do you find it easy juggling the radio show with being a history professor? How do students react to your disc jockey persona?
Matt says -- Well it is difficult at times to juggle the two but I do feel they complement one another. Both involve reaching out to an audience and both, I feel, do make an impact. I am somewhat romantic on the notion of change and its possibilities. Even though I do not see myself as having power to change things, I do see myself as an educator and I treat both jobs the same way. So with the program, I try to use the music, which is the most powerful medium in this world, to teach my audience about other cultures and other countries. It is very important and essential I find for Jamaica. Jamaican music and culture is known the world over. That is clear and undisputable. But Jamaicans do need to understand the world around them and if I can be a part of a process that exposes them to that change, it is worthwhile to me. On the lighter side, it does also allow me to explore my passion for music and particularly Haitian music which I must confess I am totally obsessed with. So that excitement comes through I hope. As for my students, those who do know label me "the DJ Lecturer." Otherwise, like Bruce Wayne, I keep my alternate identity a secret.
Alice says -- Don't ask dont tell...
Matt says -- Exactly. By the way, i'm listening to Tabou Combo, "Bebe Paramount" right now.
Alice says --Sadly, I don't know the song...
Matt says -- Shame on you!!!!! One of the best tracks of the mini-djazz era and a classic in tabou's repertoire.
Alice says --I probably know it but not by name. I know "Nouyoksiti", "Mabouya" etc though.
Matt says --The one about the groupie at the Paramount Theatre that waited backstage to see them... Amazing solo from Dadou Pasquet. I'm sure you know it. They re-released it on the "Rasanble" album as "Banboch Paramount" with an updated compas beat and it also features on their live album....
Alice says --"As for kreyol, well I had to learn it to do my work on Haiti and the music is also a great teacher of the language. Besides, can you think of a better language???"
How do you explain your obsession with Haitian music and with Haiti in general? I mean you even speak creole and french, how many other Jamaicans who are not of Haitian descent speak creole?
Matt says -- My fascination with Haitian music dates to my first trip to Haiti when I saw how Haitians responded to the music there and the power of it. I went to two concerts that first trip, Sweet Micky and Kanpeche and both had different constituencies yet such a deep impact on the audience. It gripped me immediately. Since then, I have been on a long quest for more Haitian music. I simply adore it and wish it could be more exposed to the rest of the world. I do my part here in Kingston with my show "Okombosi." I even have a jingle in Kreyol that I play. Some of my favourite Haitian groups/performers include: Ti-Manno, Tabou Combo, Shleu-Shleu, Boukman, Emilene Michel, Gypsies, Scorpio, DP Express (with and after Ti-Manno), Septen, Tropicana, Micky, Wyclef, Beethova Obas, and many many more. I also love that new Top Adleman album which I give a lot of airplay. What gets me about Haitian music is the way it is composed and the layers of meaning in so many of the songs. Although there is some fluff in there good songs and good performers I treat as history books as they teach me so much about the culture and the language etc.
Alice says -- Do you play any of the new generation?
Matt says -- We play Konpa Kreyol and of course Carimi gets a lot of airplay. So do the latest carnival tracks I can get my hands on though sometimes that is harder to find here as they aren't usually commercially released. I usually hit the records stores such as Boite a Musique and anywhere in Port-au-Prince I can whenever I am there and bring back as much music as possible to air. Oh yeah, how can I forget, the great master Coupe Cloue, the King. As Jamaicans say, "love him cyaan done..."
Alice says --LOL
Matt says --As for kreyol, well I had to learn it to do my work on Haiti and the music is also a great teacher of the language. Besides, can you think of a better language???
Alice says --I had a similar obsession with martiniquan and guadeloupean creoles which I learned by listening to Zouk as a teen so I completely understand... How is the music received? Is that crowd that is known for liking soca responding to it the way they respond to soca?
Matt says --Well Jamaicans feel that they miss the point of the music if they don't understand the lyrics which is why I take the time on the program to explain the song and its importance. Other times, I just select a song that is infectious and anyone can dance to it and use that as the entrée. Something like "Ayiti bang bang" or "Mabouya" anything like that gets them into it. I also play songs about Haiti by other performers too. Once I did a show that featured nothing but songs titled "Haiti." You'd be very surprised to know how many songs are titled Haiti outside of the country...
Alice says --Well I know David Rudder's "Haiti I'm Sorry"...
Matt says --Kreyol is a fascinating language. Once I started learning it my motivation carried me through and I didn't want to stop. I still continue to learn.