Album Review: BélO – Dizan [BelO Music, 15th April 2016]

In 1986, when Haitians overthrew dictator Jean Claude Duvalier and the culturally conservative authoritarian regime that he had put into place, the end of the dictatorship brought with it a freer aesthetic in Haitian music – an aesthetic that is often left unrecorded because the country’s economy does not support a vibrant music industry. Of of the recorded musicians that 1986 opened a door to existential liberty for, BélO (short for Jean Bélony Murat), is one of the very best. Inspired by hip hop, reggae and ragamuffin he conjures guitar playing and poetic lyric writing into convivial music rooted in love of his country and of its impoverished humans. His most recent album Dizan, its title (being Haitian creole for ’10 years’), celebrates a decade of music production and can be found on Spotify.

Dizan is a greatest hits album of 22 songs sung by Bélo and other well known names in Haitian art song like Emeline Michel and James Germain. All of the songs are composed around Belo’s guitar playing and are written in poetic Haitian creole or a mix of creole and French. He sings each song twice: once himself and once with one or more famous guests.

The standout songs here are ‘Klodet,’ a song in which a man sings and even screams about his love for a woman named Klodet, and ‘Vann Dlo’ an homage to the courage of the women and men that sell small bags of water in Haiti’s streets, and how it is that they contribute to the livelihood of society, sung in several voices including that of a salesperson. ‘Wozo’ sings a speech that revolutionary priests used to make during the period around the toppling of Jean Claude Duvalier: that Haitians are wozo or reeds, and as reeds they bend but they do not break. No song on the album is inferior (it’s what’s incredible about a greatest hits album) and all are expertly harmonised. They are all quiet but very rhythmic, a departure from the loud, party sounds often expected from Caribbean music. ‘Jasmine’ is a song about urban living in Haiti where certain young women who dress well and know that they are beautiful do not accept dates from men if they are not given gifts.

The fact that Haitian culture, especially urban culture, is mostly not publicised is a travesty. How many people know that many young Haitians almost yell when they sing to guitar playing as if release their cries to the world, because, to quote Homer, “what he greatly thought, he nobly dared.” Belo’s back catalogue is one of the few examples of commercialisation and Dizan, this album of greatest hits, is a grand version of it.