Joseph Emmanuel “Manno” Charlemagne, whose acerbic folk songs about Haitian politics kept him in exile — often in South Florida — for much of his life, died Sunday in a Miami Beach hospital where he was being treated for cancer.
The death of Charlemagne, 69, prompted Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to pause in an official visit to Europe to tweet that the demise of “the committed singer Manno Charlemagne is a great loss for the country and for the cultural sector in particular. My sympathies to the family and loved ones of this patriot who loved his country with passion. Haiti is grateful to him.”
That was a significant departure from the way most of Haitian officialdom regarded Charlemagne throughout his life. Rare was the Haitian politician who didn’t feel the sting of Charlemagne’s pungent lyrics, which were anything but subtle.
His songs portrayed the various members of the Duvalier dynasty, which ruled Haiti for three decades beginning in the 1950s, as enthusiastic consumers of feces. Another commented unfavorably about the size of the genitalia of René Préval, who held the presidency twice in the post-Duvalier era.
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Charlemagne’s caustic, single-minded subject matter kept him from achieving stardom outside Haiti, though many who knew him said he could have been a sensation if he’d focused on romance instead of politics.
“He’s just got a heartbreakingly beautiful, fantastically communicative voice,” the late American filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who used footage of a Charlemagne concert in his documentary “Haiti Dreams Of Democracy,” once observed. “Had Manno not been this guy — who, for whatever reasons, channeled his art into the circumstances of the people — Manno would be as famous as anybody.”
But he had a sizable following inside Haiti, where his disdain for the so-called “big-eaters” — greedy politicians — fit in well with the tempestuous public mood. Charlemagne was “the conscience of the nation during the transition from dictatorship to democracy,” said Ed Lozama, a South Florida radio personality who now heads the Haitian government-owned National Radio in Port-au-Prince.
“As he fought the dictator, he warned the new leadership about the temptation of getting back to the old days,” Lozama added.
When Charlemagne joined the politicians, though, the results were much less acclaimed. The tumultuous four-year term he served after being elected mayor of Port-au-Prince in 1995 despite proclaiming himself a communist on the eve of the vote was widely considered unsuccessful.
Charlemagne “alienated the elites, naturally, and continued to have a poor relationship with the [presidential] palace, with the United Nations, with just about everybody, another man in city hall unwilling to listen, a stranger to compromise and intolerant of anyone who challenged his power,” wrote author Bob Shacochis in his book on Haitian politics, “The Immaculate Invasion.”
In recent years, Charlemagne had largely disdained politics and gone back to music. He was a frequent performer at the Miami Beach restaurant Tap Tap, even after his diagnosis with multiple forms of cancer at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.