Haitian Black History Month Highlight: Singer Martha Jean-Claude
When it comes to legendary Haitian singers, very few singers are in the rank of Martha Jean-Claude. Born on March 21, 1919 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Martha’s golden voice was as memorable as her career, which Haitian musical historians say begun in the late 1930s and early 40s, with young Martha singing at musical spectacles at Haiti’s famed Rex Theatre and at other informal gatherings. Martha, who became known for her skills at creating original compositions, was an astute writer as well, penning a play entitled “Avrinette”in 1952 that Haitian President Paul Eugene Magloire found so disrespectful to his government that he had her imprisoned. Jean-Claude would later state that she gave birth to her child two days after her release. It became clear to her that Haiti would not be a safe place to remain, and she left it for Cuba, where her husband Victor Marabal (spelled Marabel in some sources). She married the Cuban journalist though some scholars do not seem to agree on when. Some say, it was prior to her forced exile to Cuba in 1952, others say it was in 1947, prior to her exile (they reportedly had met in Venezuela). What she has said in interviews, however, was that when she went into exile, she was pregnant with her first child and refers to Marabal as her husband. So naturally, we’ll go with her version. – vi Kreyolicios
According to Haitian Times:
Martha Jean-Claude was a cultural force, using her legendary voice in songs of protest against injustice. Though she lived in exile most of her adult life, her music and activism influenced generations in Haiti. It earned Jean-Claude worldwide acclaim, and at home, she remained the “Grand Dame of Haitian Song.” Jean-Claude was born on March 21, 1919, in Haiti’s capital. She spent her childhood singing as a soloist at the Port-au-Prince Cathedral and in 1942 made her professional debut in a series of folkloric concerts at the downtown Rex Theater, where she would often be accompanied by singer and dancer Emerante de Pradines. She rose to prominence in the 1940′s and 1950′s, along with de Pradines, and a musical tradition that embraced folklore and patriotic songs. In 1952, President Paul Magloire had her imprisoned after the publication of Anriette, a play which officials found subversive to his government. Soon thereafter, she was released because she was pregnant — just two days after her release, she gave birth to her first child. Jean-Claude fled from Haiti to join her husband, Victor Mirabal, a Cuban journalist with whom she would go on to have four children.
Her life in exile began in Venezuela, until she settled in Cuba, where she developed an influential music career in Havana. Jean-Claude became a household name in Cuba — she performed in numerous concerts and appeared frequently on radio and television. While in Cuba, Jean-Claude released some of her most influential work including, Yo soy la cancion de Haiti (I am Haiti’s song), Canciones de Haiti (Songs of Haiti) and Mujer de dos islas (Woman of Two Islands). Over the years, she performed with many Cuban musicians, like the legendary Celia Cruz, with whom she performed the Haitian classic, Choucoune. Jean-Claude also starred in Humberto Solás’ 1974 film Simparele, a short, interpretive documentary about Haitian history. Jean-Claude was not only a singer and actress, but also an accomplished composer and writer. She was a member of the notable Cuban Union of Writers and Artists and composed C’est la vie mon cher, part of Orquesta Aragon’s repertoire that became one of her most acclaimed compositions.
Jean-Claude traveled around the world and worked with many renowned artists and performed on the world’s most famous stages. In 1957, she visited Mexico to star in a movie alongside the famed Cuban actress, Ninon Sevilla. Within a year she became a producer at a Mexican TV station. She went on to tour Europe, playing at Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the US, playing Madison Square Garden in New York City and many African countries, including Angola, during the resource-rich country’s dangerous civil war.
Finally, in 1986, after the fall of the Duvalier regime, like so many other exiles, Jean-Claude returned for a visit to her native homeland. After more than 30 years, she would perform in Haiti, for thousands of her eager compatriots. In 1996, President René Preval honored her with the government’s highest accolade — a national medal of honor.
On November 14, 2001, Jean-Claude lost her longtime battle with diabetes at age 82. She died in a Cuban hospital, surrounded by her family.
Jean-Claude will long be remembered for her massive contributions to Haitian and Cuban culture through the Martha Jean-Claude Foundation — and the songs of resistance she sang in solidarity with those in Haiti who for too long, had been rendered voiceless. “To sing the song of the peasants, that’s what is in my heart. I lean toward these people. My songs are what one calls protest ballads.”