‘Chèche lavi.’ Seek living. A two-word expression in Haitian Creole that sums up the phrase ‘Seeking ways of earning a living’ and suggests that a living is not something that comes easily, but a goal to be sought - as if you were on a quest for a lost prize or buried treasure. So Franckel Sifranc and his fellow musicians in Boulpik are seekers of life. Nothing particularly extraordinary has happened in their careers. In fact, their past is very like that of millions of other Haitians - except that they have a gift for music.
Franckel’s story began around fifty years ago in La Grand Anse, the Republic of Haiti’s most remote region, far to the west. Thinking back to his childhood in the coastal village of Dame-Marie, he remembers the sounds of the ‘ti djaz’ (little jazz): acoustic bands of amateur musicians who were so called to distinguish them from the more prestigious ‘gwo djaz’ (big jazz) bands with their modern instruments and amplifiers. The ti djaz playing at provincial gatherings used rudimentary, often locally-made instruments: a six-string “Matamò” guitar (its name a reminder of the Trio Matamoros’s strong influence on the genre), a trè (a guitar of Cuban origin with three strings, sometimes doubled) or even a banjo. The instrumental line-up was completed by a three-string double bass or a maniboula (a plucked idiophone based on the Cuban marímbula) and percussion: a drum, maracas and scraping board or kaskayèt (claves) to accompany the vocal chorus that responded to the main singer.
As a child growing up in a family of farm workers, Franckel had no idea he would one day use those instruments to “seek living”. Yet just a few years later, like thousands of other rural inhabitants, he was forced to leave the countryside for the capital, Port-au-Prince, whose population has risen from 500,000 to almost 3 million over the last 50 years. Aged 14, Franckel arrived in the city at the end of the 70s, invited by an elder brother who had gone into exile before him. Settling in the modest Delmas 4 neighborhood in the lower part of town, he found work as a handyman, earning 35 gourdes a month (about $7 US). He began to explore the capital and came across the many musicians who supplied the soundtrack for the city at night and entertained tourists (there were still many foreign visitors at the time). Finally, Franckel became a member of the “Ti Okap” band. Today, all that remains of the group’s career are the name of its leader and memories of its popular performances in different hotels. It was with the band that Franckel learned how to sing and play maracas and kaskayèt.
Then in 1980, he decided to form his own group: “Frère Desjeunes”. He continued to play with them for more than twenty-four years, despite frequent interruptions caused by the endless sociopolitical upheavals that rocked the country. Then in 2004, Franckel tried a new approach, reforming the band as “Boulpik” with five younger musicians that he considered more talented and committed than their predecessors.
His thirty-four year career means that Franckel Sifranc is one of Port-au-Prince’s most senior troubadours. He has no doubts about his status: “I’m the father - or rather the grandfather - of all the troubadour groups in the capital. Anyone who says they don’t know me can only be lying. So many musicians have been through the ranks of Frère Desjeunes and Boulpik, and I’ve worked with so many others.” Since Franckel started out, the situation in Haiti has changed radically. Musicians used to play to earn a little extra cash, but now they are completely reliant on their music as the only source of income for themselves and their families. Unlike many others, Boulpik’s musicians have refused to emigrate (always a temptation for ‘living seekers’). They still believe in their lucky star and display no signs of defeatism or self-pity, but rather a moving simplicity and an unshakable determination to trust in happiness and good cheer. As the song ‘Rele’ shows: “Nou gen yon talan / Pou nou devlope / Se twoubadou Bondye ba nou (…) / Annou chante lanmou / Annou chante lajwa / Annou chante lavi” (We have a gift to cultivate. It is the Good Lord who made us troubadours. We’ll sing of love, we’ll sing of joy, we’ll sing of life).