Christian Ubertini



Christian Ubertini with Manno Charlemagne. Paradox. Pétion-Ville (2015)
On December 10, 2017, the Haitian singer ans songwriter, Manno Charlemagne, died. To pay tribute to this leading figure of the anti-Duvalierist protest, the newspaper "Le Nouvelliste", published testimonies of those who had been close to him from near and far. Here is mine.
Published in Le Nouvelliste of 12.12.2017
Zanmi pre

I met Manno Charlemagne very late in his life and probably after everyone here. I discovered him in September 2009, just a few days after my arrival in Haiti, hearing his voice for the first time on the radio. It was a real shock. I didn't understand the words, but I could already grasp the meaning of his songs. There was Félix Leclerc in the way he played, Brassens in the limpidity of his melodies, Vladimir Vissotski and Victor Jara in the powerful tremors of his voice. I quickly understood that he belonged to the great family of text singers. The same family that shaped me and that I invited to my home in the evenings for a solitary singing tour. Although I didn’t know him, Manno was very familiar to me.

The first time I attended a Manno concert in a bar in Pétion-Ville, I was the only one to ask him for an autograph. Manno often reminded me of this anecdote because he thought it was rather absurd that a “blan” would make such a request. Perhaps, it was to pay him tribute, that I wanted to learn his songs. I started looking for his records and I remember having a hard time finding his lyrics, either on the Internet or in bookstores. I only had recordings. So I began to transcribe his lyrics and at the same time have them translated by a friend.

One day, I was attending a concert by Manno and Wooly Saint-Louis when the latter invited me on stage to play with Manno. Manno remained skeptical and said to me: "Ki sa w konn jwe?” [which song do you know?]. I answered him by starting with the chords of his famous song "Zanmi pre" using his characteristic style of arpeggios. Reassured, he smiled at me and we went on with the songs without repetition.

Since that day and despite his illness, we met at home several times. I remember that evening when he picked up the guitar and started singing "Bonsoir mes amis" a song by Frédérik Mey. He said that Frédérik Mey and Françoise Hardy were among the first singers that made him start singing and playing guitar.

Behind an apparent simplicity, Manno's repertoire is of an incredible melodic precision. Beyond being "the voice that says shit" as Lyonel Trouillot affectionately says, Manno was also the sensitive voice that knew how to pay tribute and remember in a country where one quickly forgets. These songs like Pou Lobo or Pou Gasner Raymond remain masterpieces and are in their own way also political songs.

Today, I hope that a Manno Charlemagne Prize will be created to reward the young poets and committed songwriters of this country, who share the same ideals of justice and freedom inherited from Manno's work.

Christian Ubertini
Other Links:
Duet in Paradox
Dans la gueule du crocodile. Documentary of Catherine Larivain and Lucie Ouimet on Manno Charlemagne (1998)