The Miami-raised Haitian-American singer Inez Barlatier has a lot going on. First of all, she has a gorgeous voice, with a deep, rich sound and velvety, layered tones, as if she had a chorus singing harmony inside her, that have led some to call her a Haitian Tracy Chapman. She’s got Miami cultural history in her bloodlines. Her father, Jan Sebon, was a co-founder and leader of Koleksyon Kazak, a Haitian racine (roots) music group popular in Miami in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Kazak was a leader in a movement to bring Haitian Creole culture and traditional music like rara to the fore, even as hope and turmoil filled Haiti with the advent and overthrow of Aristide, overflowing into Miami.
Sebon was onstage backing his daughter as Barlatier made her “mainstage” concert debut at Miami-Dade County Auditorium in early May. The show was the second in Fundarte’s annual Climakaze festival of performance and climate change activism; it was also part of Fundarte’s “From el Barrio to the Mainstage,” a program to commission music projects from Miami artists backed by a Knight Arts Challenge grant. The Mainstage idea is a terrific one. Barlatier has been on the underground Miami musical radar for a few years now. On this night, she finally got her full-on pop concert staging– with an excellent 11-piece band, complete with back-up singers, and four dancers. Sebon, according to Fundarte and Climakaze’s Elizabeth Doud, helped with musical arrangements and served as a kind of musical director. He also played percussion – he must have been so proud to see his powerful artist daughter.
Which she is. Barlatier has natural charisma. She radiates energy; barefoot, she skimmed the stage, exhorting the audience, her musicians, the dancers, her smile as bright as her white top and red skirt. “This is not a song for sitting down!” she announced midway, before a “Haitian hot song” she said was played during carnival in 1804 “when we got our freedom.” She surfed and drove pulsing, rhythmically driving rara-style songs; sang a blisteringly soulful rendition of Summertime; a joyful, pop-rock tribute to her mother.
The audience of several hundred, dominated by Haitians but including folks drawn by Climakaze and Fundarte, loved her, dancing, cheering for more as she ended. Outside an excited crowd swirled around the stage door. The whole event radiated hometown love and enthusiasm.
So I hate to put a “but” here. But – to keep filling big stages, Barlatier will need to define herself more clearly, both musically and as an artist. The concert was called “Claim Your Fame,” which was also the name of a song whose refrain was “claim your fame, it is the birthright to your name.” Which seems to join Haitian cultural consciousness and American Idol style ambition, and doesn’t really make sense for either. There were so many elements to this show – Haitian roots/cultural consciousness, pop-rock energy, American soul. The four Afro-Caribbean dancers were onstage too much of the time for my taste – they took the focus away from Barlatier, and the dancing seemed to belong to a folkloric show more than a concert.
Barlatier is worlds away, in style and reach, from Gloria and Emilio’s daughter Emily Estefan, who made her concert debut in February at University of Miami, Frost School of Music’s Festival Miami. But as second-generation daughters of established immigrant musicians (or pop stars), they share some of the issues – how do they define themselves in relation to their parents’ music, their heritage, and their own artistic identity?
As proud as she is of her heritage, Barlatier doesn’t seem to want to be a purely traditional Haitian artist. But she’s not an American pop act or singer-songwriter either. She has the voice, the talent and the charisma. Now she has to figure out how to bring together all the musics and identities that flow through her.