BY TOM AUSTIN | July 1, 2010 | Lifestyle
The vibrant gown seen here—as well as some of the accessories in this feature—is from Vèvè Collections, a line produced in Haiti by Phelicia Dell, who incorporates symbols from Haitian culture in many of her designs. The January earthquake destroyed Dell’s production facility and showroom, but her brand continues to flourish; many of her artisans produced pieces in makeshift tents in the days after the tragedy. All purchases contribute to the island’s rebuilding.
Custom dress, Vèvè Collections ($5,000). vevecollections.com. Leather disc earrings (price on request). C. Madeleine’s, 13702 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami; <a href="http://www.cmadeleines.com">cmadeleines.com</a>
n a Sunday afternoon at Notre Dame d’Haiti, Carol City rapper Flo Rida is singing at an earthquake- relief benefit. As lilting as a compas (the country’s national music) song on a hot summer’s night, Miami’s Little Haiti is in full swing. Notre Dame d’Haiti is one of the strongholds of the exile community: Music pours out of the church continually and parishioners often dance in the aisles during services. In Little Haiti, sheer exuberance is always part of the equation.
USA Carwash, where the Haitian roots band Rara Lakayhas performed in the past, is just a few blocks down Northeast Second Avenue. Today, the noted rara band—a form of traditional music for followers of Vodou that uses crude instruments made of tin and modified PVC tubing—is practicing in the adjacent lot, one member complaining: “The police won’t let us play concerts in the streets anymore—too many people gather around.” The whole scene is fun, chaotic and rhythmic as all get-out, a Miami twist on the musically driven energy of New Orleans. To Dadou Pasquet of the great compas Magnum Band, this represents the best of Little Haiti. “In Haiti now,” he observes, “you almost never hear roots music, but in Miami, it’s everywhere.”
The legendary Les Cousins Books and Records, founded in 1975 by Viter Juste—father of The Miami Herald photographerCarl Juste and an iconic figure known as the “Father of Little Haiti”—is gone now, but music spills out of endless Haitian record stores, tap-tap trucks (brightly painted vehicles used for public transport in Haiti) and dance halls. Outside Peterli Club and Restaurant are portraits of Sweet Micky, the hugely popular compas star, and Wyclef Jean; inside is a poster from Scarface(I TRUST ME) and a depiction of Jesus, that whole heaven/hell/saint/ sinner thing being big in Little Haiti. Another ethnocultural stomping ground is Naomi’s restaurant, which recently hosted an Oxfam America benefit for Haiti with roots band Empress Addi and the Breeze. In the garden, an artist who goes by the tag of The Real Poor Man is pointing out his mural of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian slave who led a successful revolt against the French. It all feels more Caribbean than American, as a rooster wanders past beat-up leather sofas and Naomi’s version of a VIP lounge, adorned with posters of Peter Tosh (LEGALIZE IT: LAWYERS SMOKE IT) and a television blaring out Fox News. This being Little Haiti, nothing makes much sense, which is part of the charm.
Ground zero of social Little Haiti is Chef Creole on Northwest 54th Street, the equivalent of Versailles on Southwest Eighth Street, where locals line up at the counter for conch salad and griot (fried pork); one wall is entirely covered with commemorative photos of famous griot fans who have dropped by over the years, a list that includes Wyclef Jean and Fat Joe. The street that defines the southern boundary of Little Haiti includes a string of shops catering to Vodou practitioners, chock-a-block with mystery: Offerings include herbs with rich and exotic odors, ritual bottles covered in sequins, and “money soap,” whose heavy scent is said to attract success. It’s all way real, with a primordial funk that’s straight out of the Mickey Rourke noir of Angel Heart.
Fantastic murals with the punch of street art, terrific stuff that announces the ordinary realm of life has been left behind, adorn the exterior walls of every establishment. Most of the work is bySerge Toussaint, who has transformed the “S” in his first name to a dollar sign. His portrait of Barack Obamadominates the corner of 54th Street and North Miami Avenue, and a nearby convenience store has a rendering of “Pepsi Serge” and exhortations such as CHRIST IS THE FOOD OF HOPE; an adjacent beauty-supply store is all dancing hair dryers and combs. Heading north,Bob Marley and Malcolm X turn up next to a Zopi supermarket effort with “Newpott” cigarettes. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. at Northwest 62nd Street and I-95 is accented by King’s dictum, HATE CANNOT DRIVE OUT HATE; ONLY LOVE CAN.
One of the true centers of the Haitian intelligentsia is the bookstore Libreri Mapou: The Haitian diaspora has produced its own literary stars in Miami, such as Edwidge Danticat, author ofBrother, I’m Dying and winner of the MacArthur Genius grant. Aside from Haitian books and magazines, owner Jan Mapou, a playwright, also sells kremasMapou, a blend of rum, coconut milk and assorted “secret Haitian ingredients.”
Next door is architect Charles Pawley’s Caribbean Marketplace, a modern replica of the famed Iron Market in Port-au-Prince: The market is currently shuttered, another bold Miami urban-revitalization project gone by the wayside. A block away is the gleaming new Little Haiti Cultural Center, equipped with an art gallery, theater space and dance studios. You can often find dance coordinator Anita Darbonne bouncing around the facility. In the galleries, artist Edouard Duval Carrié is entertaining a contingent of French culturati. Duval Carrié curated the exhibition “Global Caribbean” at the LHCC, which premiered during last year’s Art Basel with the assistance of Caraïbes en Créations and CulturesFrance, the French government agency for culture-exchange programs. The immensely talented Duval Carrié, who is curating “Global Caribbean II” at the Cultural Center for Art Basel 2010 with the support of Tigertail Productions, has his studios next door, featuring some of the same Vaudou Parthenum figurines that are in the permanent collection of the Miami Art Museum. He is also an integral part of the adjacent Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, a nonprofit organization involved in the promotion of Haitian culture. For years, Duval Carrié has remained smack-dab in the middle of one extraordinary Miami neighborhood, and takes a certain pride in the new age: “Look at Little Haiti now—it has become the center of Miami, the place where it’s all happening.”
photographs by marc richards tousignant