They came one last time to pay homage to the firebrand folk singer whose politically charged lyrics set to acoustic guitar melodies put corrupt politicians on notice and inspired a generation of Haitians.
Joseph Emmanuel “Manno” Charlemagne was their Bob Dylan, their Bob Marley — and his stirring lyrics became a shield as they battled dictatorship, struggled with democracy and dreamed of another Haiti.
Now Charlemagne and his deep, crooning voice are gone, taken by cancer in Miami Beach where, for years, he entertained diners at South Beach’s Tap Tap Restaurant with his songs of protest.
His death at 69 on Sunday came after multiple stints in exile, many assassination attempts and a star-studded international campaign by the late filmmaker Jonathan Demme to free him from the Argentine Embassy where he sought haven after a military coup toppled Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. An avowed Marxist who was dubbed the “Caged Bird of Haiti,” he had an unsuccessful tenure as mayor of Port-au-Prince in the mid-90s.
Over the years, his storied activism on behalf of Haiti’s poor — and his political missteps — became the subject of books and films that elevated him to folk-hero status.
“This makes me sad,” said Jean Chaperon, 53, a longtime friend fighting back tears as he stood in the sanctuary of Little Haiti’s Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, steps away from Charlemagne’s open casket. “He fought hard for the country to change and that didn’t happen.”
Katia Barnave, Charlemagne’s younger sister, said the family decided to hold the public viewing and memorial Mass in Miami before flying his body next week to Haiti.
“He’s been so well known and recognized for decades that it’s just a way for people to pay their respects and honor him in the way that he deserves to be honored,” she said.
Still, Charlemagne, who shuttled back and forth between Miami and Haiti, had a conflicted relationship with the land of the blanc, or foreigner. In one of his most popular tunes, Alyenkat (“Alien Card”), Charlemagne railed against the treatment of Haitians seeking refuge in the United States, a country that he and others accused of invading Haiti on multiple occasions.
“He really loved his country,” said Barnave, who was trying to reconcile how she was unable to fulfill his wish to die in Haiti.
Charlemagne came to Miami in July to go to the doctor. He was fighting lung cancer that had spread to his brain.
“He was who he was, all the way up to the end — a fighter to the last days,” Barnave said.
Jean Michel Lapin, the director general of Haiti’s Ministry of Culture, said the government will pay to bring Charlemagne’s body back to Haiti, and has taken charge of his funeral “to permit the entire country to pay a final homage.”
While South Florida artists and Charlemagne’s Tap Tap band will honor him — and the late Haitian painter Joseph Wilfrid Daleus, who also died Sunday in Miami — at Sounds of Little Haiti on Friday, the Haitian government has organized a musical tribute in Charlemagne’s honor on Tuesday on the Champ de Mars in Port-au-Prince.
His government-sponsored funeral is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 22, also on the Champ de Mars, across from the grounds of the National Palace.
Still undecided, Lapin said, is whether Charlemagne will be given a state funeral, the highest honor.
Former Haitian President Michel Martelly, who had been pushing to bring Charlemagne back to Haiti before his death and was instrumental in getting the government to pay for the funeral, said he deserves the state ceremony.
“Based on the dimensions of Manno and how huge he is, why not consider something national?” Martelly told the Miami Herald in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince. “He deserves it.”
Martelly, also a singer who goes by the stage persona “Sweet Micky,” said prior to Charlemagne’s death, plans had been in the works to fly him back to Haiti.
“But he was too weak and could not travel. We had to wait until he recovered — which never happened,” Martelly said.
On Thursday, South Florida’s Haitian community paid tribute to Charlemagne by quoting his lyrics and reminiscing about their time together. Florida Sen. Daphne Campbell, a Haitian American, announced that she was naming N. Sherman Circle in Miramar, where one of Charlemagne’s sons lives, in his honor.
Gary Sanon-Jules, the former general manager of Tap Tap, said that honor, however, belongs in South Beach.
“I’d rather name a street where he lived than where he died. He performed at Tap Tap for 20 years, lived upstairs overlooking Meridian Court,” Sanon-Jules said. “That street embodies a lot of our memories as we all illegally parked our cars to go and listen to Manno Charlemagne and the Tap Tap Band. That street should be renamed Manno Charlemagne Court”
Haitian musician Beethova Obas, who recorded the song Nwel Anme (“Bitter Christmas”) with Charlemagne, said he didn’t know he was so connected to his longtime friend until he appeared to him in his dreams two days before his death.
“He said, ‘I was wondering when you were going to come see me,’” said Obas, who lives in Belgium. Hours later, Obas, on vacation in Port St. Lucie, was at Charlemagne’s bedside “playing all the songs that whenever he was around, he wouldn’t let me sing.” One of the final songs, Obas said he played, was his song Kè’m poze (”I am at peace”).
“I told him, ‘You are facing the light; you have to go to the light. You were sent to do a job. You did your job,’ ” Obas said. “Even if I knew he was going to die, I wasn’t prepared for him to go.”
Not all those who came out Thursday were luminaries. Some were regular people like 87-year-old Gerard Antoine, who despite his cane, said he needed to pay his final respects.
As Antoine ambled toward the gray casket where Charlemagne, dressed in a navy suit, white shirt and green-striped tie lay surrounded by white roses and daisies, the singer’s song, Lan Male m’ Ye, (“I am in deep trouble”) played.
“People tend to recognize people when they die,” Martelly said.
A fan of Charlemagne since he was a teenager, Martelly, 56, who often sang about the country’s misery before his successful 2010 presidential bid, said he often drew inspiration from Charlemagne’s songs and guitar-based twoubadou melodies.
“You don’t hear his type of songs. Manno was unique in the way he spoke about problems in Haiti, the reality in Haiti … He talked about real stories of life, stories that could touch you, and make you, whether man or woman, cry,” Martelly said.
“He marked our time, our culture,” the former president added. “He opened a lot of young people’s minds to Haiti’s problems and on how to dream, how to think. He was a real talent.”