Moonlight Benjamin Sings a Song of Haiti
Moonlight Benjamin Sings a Song of Haiti
For hardcore rock fans, attending a concert can be like spiritual transcendence. Moonlight Benjamin would probably agree. The Haitian-born, France-based rock star was initiated into voodoo a decade ago, and she has since carved out a career as a fearless artist who sings about the spirit world or life in Port-au-Prince. On Thursday, April 25, Benjamin will play a FREE concert at the David Rubenstein Atrium, presented in collaboration with the World Music Institute. Brian Keigher of WMI recently spoke to the singer-songwriter about her career and the surging popularity of Haitian music.
Brian Keigher: Congratulations on the recent string of acclaimed performances and success of the album Siltane. It is so good to see another side of music from Haiti that most people don't get to hear. Did you have a feeling when you were making the album that it would end up taking you far outside of your usual travels in France and Haiti? Getting billed as the "Patti Smith of Haiti" or the current "Queen of Voodoo Rock." How do you feel about these comparisons?
Moonlight Benjamin: I knew that after years of performing jazz and acoustic world music, taking this "voodoo blues" direction would open new doors to me. But I didn't expect it to happen so widely and quickly! Fifteen years after arriving in Europe, it is like a request made to the universe which gets a positive answer. And the comparisons to Patti Smith or being called a Voodoo Queen! It’s a lot. I’m pleased, but I need more time to hold them.
BK: What countries and cities, aside from New York, are you most excited to share your music with?
MB: Haiti! I've never performed my own songs in Haiti. I have sung there, but only as a guest artist for others. Of course, I travelled there the past decade, but not as my own artist. No one saw my bands and shows there. I really want that to happen in 2020.
BK: Where have you always wanted to travel or perform?
MB: Everywhere there are people who could be touched by my music.
BK: What do you want New York audiences to know about you before your upcoming performance at the David Rubenstein Atrium?
MB: In addition to blues rock, I hope I will transmit some serenity, harmony, and joy to people through the concert.
BK: Aside from writer Frank Etienne, who are other figures in Haitian culture that played a role or influence on you and your music?
MB: There are many—such as the great Toto Bissainte, Azor, Sanba Zao, Edit Jean François de Boukan Guinen, and Jean-Claude Martineau. And many non-famous people have helped me to build myself, supporting and holding me with their strength and heart all my life.
"In addition to blues rock, I hope I will transmit some serenity, harmony, and joy to people."
BK: The music of Haiti has been getting more attention in recent years. The band Arcade Fire has done collaborations that highlight connections between Haiti and New Orleans. Great Haitian artists such as RAM and Boukman Eksperyans, as well as younger acts such as Lakou Mizik and Leyla McCalla (who also performed at the David Rubenstein Atrium) have all been getting more attention in mainstream press and media. Why do you think this is happening now?
MB: In my opinion, Haitian music was widely untapped, and Haiti was rarely represented as a country of value; its bright areas were too often forgotten. But now today, through social media, the opportunities to explore other cultures are enormous. Haiti takes advantage of this situation to break its isolation, allowing curious people to learn of its unique culture, rediscovering what the country already has to bring to North America through its African roots. It is also a fundamental principle of my collaboration with guitarist Matthis Pascaud—who understands my intention, what colors I want to give my music—to reach a larger audience. I'm so pleased we’ve gotten such great feedback in North America. Very little difference separates us when you have an open heart.
BK: Who are other Haitian music acts that the rest of the world should know about?
MB: Let me first come back to Haiti to check about new local acts and I will answer you! I shared a couple of evenings with Melissa Laveaux, and I hope to do so with other Haitian artists in the months to come.
BK: You’ve been living in France for some time; how often do you go back to Haiti?
MB: Every four or five years. I’ll hope I'll be able to come back more often.
BK: If you were booked to play three different music acts of any type, in no particular order, who would be your dream lineup?
MB: Dr. John and Janis Joplin! Sadly, this is not possible anymore for Janis. They both inspired me and continue to inspire me.
BK: What excites you most about coming to New York?
MB: For me New York is a wonderful cultural and ethnic mix. I feel so humbled to be part of it—even for one evening!
Brian Keigher is Artistic Director of World Music Institute.
For more information about programs at the David Rubenstein Atrium, visit lincolncenter.org/atrium.