IN the CURRENT: an Interview with Richard Morse

by John Blanton. Edgar

From Fall 2016

The beautiful chaos of Haiti weeps into everything, especially at Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Oloffson, where a friend advised I stay on my trip there this past summer. It had to be the Oloffson, my friend said, because they have the greatest hotel band in the history of owner-fronted hotel bands. Led by proprietor Richard Morse, RAM plays mizik rasin, a form that brings influences from Haitian Vodou and folklore together with rock and roll. But this encyclopedic description fails to convey the beautiful chaos that captured me on my steamy first night on the island, which happened to be a Thursday, the night of the band’s standing, weekly gig. 

Over the following weeks staying at the hotel, I found myself talking to Richard frequently, and we developed a rapport. I caught hints that many of the places he’d been before Haiti were every bit as electrifying as the Oloffson. On my last night in Haiti, I shared a meal with three generations of the Morse family, sitting on the vast porch that wraps the Oloffson’s fairest side, cooled by the slow sweep of electric fans. There, Richard unfolded for me the path that led him to this majestic place.

JBE: So lets start with your mother, Emerante Morse, nee Emerante de Pradines, the famous voodoo singer, dancer, and folklorist. I imagine that she was your first musical influence. 

RM: My mom began as a singer, I’m pretty sure she started singing first, and then dancing. For some reason she became attracted to the voodoo. She wasn’t brought up in it, but she became attracted. Growing up, her dad was a performer, a troubadour of social and political songs, and he got possessed one time when he was a kid, so he sang some voodoo songs. And mom had mystical relations, she had mystical things happen to her, and she started studying the folklore here in Port au Prince, but then she started going out into the provinces and she became fascinated by the way people dressed and danced during the ceremonies. She started singing those songs she learned, and she had an operatic voice, and I think that’s why she was able to bring those songs back to Port-au-Prince, to the elites. She had a classical sound. And they weren’t having anything to do with the voodoo at the time, but she started doing shows at the embassies for the elites. And then she went to New York in the 1940s, where she worked with Katherine Dunham. I believe she started out as just a singer, but later she danced for Dunham too. And then she started working with Martha Graham. During my whole childhood, she was teaching Graham Technique and Haitian folklore. And the folklore comes from the voodoo, which I didn’t understand at the time because no one ever sat down and explained it to me. I didn’t figure that out until much later, when I came to live in Haiti. I figured out that the folklore and the voodoo were different sides of the same coin. One was entertainment and the other was ceremonial. I didn’t figure it out until I was doing folklore at the hotel with Lunise’s dance troupe, and once I saw the similarities between the folklore and the voodoo, I started working with two of her drummers, trying to figure out how to make songs with the rhythms. 

JBE: I read more your mother was the first Haitian musician to sign a record contract. How did her albums come to be? 

RM: She started working with Harold Courlander, who was an anthropologist and writer. He wrote The Drum and the Hoe and another called the Bordeaux Narratives, and he used to come to the Oloffson, so I met him here when he was a guest. I didn’t know who he was, but one day I looked at mom’s album and saw “Produced by Harold Courlander.” And the record was for Folkways, which became Smithsonian Folkways. The first record mom made was on Ansonia, and the second was on Folkways. Smithsonian rereleased both of them as a CD in 2007. The actual albums are in the Lincoln Center Library and I went to listen to them one time. I went and looked them up, to see if it was true that they were there, and I listened and cried, because she’s such a moving singer and I’d never heard the records. I would hear her perform when I was a kid, because she had that dance center, and they would do shows, and so I would be hearing it growing up in Connecticut where my dad was teaching at Yale, but I didn’t really know what it was, just that it was my mom’s stuff. She was teaching the folklore to suburban kids, maybe a few black Americans, but mostly suburban kids, and every once in a while she would bring her dance troupe from Haiti and I’d see them perform. 

JBE: Lets talk about the early days of your music, the Princeton years. 

RM: I started school there in 1975 and graduated in 1979. I didn’t grow up Haitian whatsoever. I would go to New York and meet my aunts and my cousins, but I didn’t speak Creole, I was just an American kid. My aunts were very Haitian, and my mom, but she wasn’t like her sisters. They had a way of feeding you in a very Haitian way. I really didn’t understand who they were until I learned Creole as an adult. I didn’t run into any Haitians other than my relatives until college, unless I was taken to a Haitian community, but in my day to day life, I never saw a Haitian until my Freshman year when I went up to the foosball table and there were two Haitians playing and I said “Hey my mom’s Haitian,” and they looked at me and said “Parle Creole?” and I said “No,” and they just kind of blew me off. I was brought up as a white kid. I was told at boarding school that I was black, so I had to choose. I spent a couple of years hanging out with black people, and I didn’t identify with the racism that was all around at the time. My mom’s black and my dad’s white, so I didn’t understand all that. I kinda of pulled back and discovered it was just easier to have a friend or two and ignore the whole race thing. But then I got to college and I was confronted again with the whole, “Who you going to hang out with, us or them?” So, I did the same thing and retreated into just having one or two friends and didn’t do anything. 

At Princeton I had a roommate for four years, and senior year we moved off campus to a farmhouse. We’d made some money over the summer selling popcorn at sports games. We had cash flow, making $100 an hour selling popcorn. The official name for the company was Uncle Ed’s Ripoff Popcorn Company. You made a lot of money, worked two or three hours and that was it. People back then were making $3.50 an hour, so we were doing good. I bought a car so we could commute to the farmhouse. I’d, by then, gone to six years of boarding school and was in my fourth year of college, so I was a professional student. And that last year I had, maybe, a class or two a week, so I played a lot of hoops and, basically, I was on a road with no direction. It was perfect. My roommate played piano, and he met this guy who played guitar and they used to go to the music hall and jam together, and the guitarist had a friend from Cherry Hill at the Philadelphia College of Art who played drums. One day they came up to me and said, “Rich, why don’t you buy a bass and you can come join us” and I said, “How much?” and they said, “Like, $300,” and so I got me a bass and a bass amp. I didn’t know how to play bass. I didn’t know how to play any instrument. I didn’t even really know what a song was.  Around that time, WMMR did this radio contest for unsigned bands. And I said lets get Greg Ramone in on this. He was a friend who’d already graduated and he played guitar and his dad owned A&R Recording Studios. “R” in A&R is Phil Ramone, a super famous producer. So we started working on a song and we named the band the Groceries and we all took grocery-themed names. Our singer, Bruce Lincoln, a Black kid, took the name “Holliday Blackstrap,” like Blackstrap Molasses. I was “Rich Lather,” the keyboard player was “Andy Boy Broccoli,” Greg Frye was “Homefry.” So, we put this song together. It went, “Can’t pay the rent, money’s all spent, I guess I gotta hit the streets.” And something like, “Livin’ in the wilds like Thoreau,” 

JBE: Because we were Princeton guys, right? 

Exactly! And so we rehearsed this song for hours and hours and sent it in to the contest. And then nothing ever happened, but they all moved into the farm house and we had a band. By this time we’d all graduated and our parents were freaking out, and we just kept rehearsing. There weren’t many original clubs in New Jersey back then, so we had to go up to New York City where there were places to play. CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, a bunch of clubs. It turned out that the one thing that was good about disco was that it made a lot of money and the record companies could afford punk rock and new wave, because they had all this disco money. Everyone in punk and new wave hated disco, but it was financing them. So when disco crashed, a lot of the clubs shut down and we retreated back to New Jersey. We started playing places like Asbury Park, and Clarence Clemons had a place called Big Man’s West, The Dirt Club, and our main gig was at King Tut’s City Garden in Trenton. We became the house band there. 

JBE:  How would you describe The Groceries’ sound at this point?

RM:  They said we sounded like The Talking Heads. We were doing some ska and reggae stuff. Somewhere inside of me there was a Caribbean sound. 

JBE: Who were some of the bands you were playing with? 

RM: We were playing with Gang of Four, Bow Wow Wow, The Thompson Twins, The Dickies, Wall of Voodoo, Flock of Seagulls, David Johansen, The Smithereens, Jon Bongiovani before he was Bon Jovi. I didn’t know he became big until after I moved to Haiti. 

And so this guy, Eric Dufore was the one to tell me I needed to go to Haiti. He had a record company and wanted to sign the band and make me the front-man, but we went with this other label that didn’t last very long. Eventually, the band started switching gears and they threw me out. I was making demands, and I was writing tons of songs. I wrote ten songs one weekend. And my songs had become the meat of our repertoire. I was writing the lyrics and the bass lines, and until they put their music on it, I didn’t know what the song sounded like. But they wanted to choose which songs we were going to work on. Of those ten songs, they wanted to pick and choose just from my bass line and lyrics, and I said “No, you can’t do it that way. Fuck you, we need try them all so that I know what’s going on, so that I can get a feeling for the material.” And with a bunch of Princeton guys, it was fodder for too much thinking and became an argument about who was going to sing them, and I said I’d sing them, and then more freak outs, and then they were like, “You have a lousy voice.” But I was feeling it. It’s funny, it wasn’t until I started working with my wife that I liked someone else singing in my band. It wasn’t that I was a control freak, but more like they were my songs. So they kicked me out. It’s 1984 by now, and I went to New York and moved in with my girlfriend, Blair. She didn’t mind me being poor when I was in a band, but when I wasn’t in a band she said I had to get a real job. And that was weird because she had tons of family money.  She was going to Greece for a month and she said that, by the time she got back, I had to have a job and an apartment. So while she was gone, I started writing songs. I got a little drum machine and a 4-track and wrote.

But some important things happened in New York that I forgot to mention. I was working with this guy who did graphic design for bands like Hall and Oates. He was actually the first guy I knew who died from AIDS. He would send me on errands and give me taxi money. I was so poor. New York is only a fun place if you’ve got money. And he would give me $5 to run an errand, and that was so bizarre. He thought I could be a model, and I did a shoot. And then Steve Rubell, the Studio 54 guy, he and Ian Schrager got out of jail for their tax evasion stuff. Steve started working on a hotel called Morgans up on Madison Avenue. My girlfriend and her friends were all fag-hags, that’s what they called themselves back then. Everyone was trying to get into the art world, and we were living in the East Village, where everything was either a crack house or an art gallery. So these girls told me that Steve Rubell needed someone to do odd jobs at Morgans while it was being remodeled and I got the job and, it was so weird, I’d be painting the stairs and Bianca Jagger would be hanging out. And the whole time I was doing this job, I was suffering, because I’m supposed to be in a band. And songs were constantly going through my head. And seeing all these people from the art world around, it was just bizarre because they were all doing one thing and my brain was doing something else. Andy Warhol was hanging out. He was the first person I ever saw take a selfie! He did it on an Instamatic, so he had to send it off to get developed! 

When Morgans was done, Steve started developing the Palladium and I went to work there. They split the Palladium up into groups. Keith Haring was doing all these huge murals in the dance hall, Kenny Scharf was doing the bathrooms in the basement, Jean-Michel Basquiat was doing the Michael Todd room, Francesco Clemente was painting the top of the staircase, and I was keeping a diary called “Steve Rubell’s Army” all this time. So one day, Steve tells me, “Francesco’s fallen behind, go give him a hand.” He’s put curtains around his whole area, so people won’t intrude, and he’s got one guy helping him make the paints, and one guy’s rubbing what he’s painted with a stone, and there’s scaffolding to the ceiling and Francesco up there painting. So I open the curtain and peek in, and no one sees me. I’m covered head to toe in paint, and when I look in, the room is vibrating. The room is going like zuhzuhzuhzuh. Francesco senses that someone’s there, and he looks down and the room immediately stops moving. Because I’ve disrupted him. And he asks what I’m doing here and I tell him Steve sent me, and he asks, “Are you an artist?” and I say, “No,” and he says, “Then come on in.” 

He tells me “Take some blue paint and do that wall.” So, now I’m painting the blue wall and they all go out to dinner while I stay. When they come back at 1AM, I’m still there standing on a chair, painting, and they start working. After about 20-30 minutes, the room starts vibrating again. I’ve never even tried to explain it, and to be honest, I’ve never even liked Francesco’s art, but the man could make the room move, so, to me, he’s a great artist. I don’t even need to know what it was. But while I’m painting, the chair I’m standing on starts to squeak, and the room just stops vibrating, because I’ve disrupted the vibe. So, Francesco climbs down and puts on a tape by the singer Sade, and the music covers the squeaking of my chair. He goes back to work, and everything cool again. After that job was over, I worked a short time for Steve as a bartender, but he wanted me to go into management and I didn’t want to, because I didn’t think I could do that and make music, so he fired me and that’s when I went to Haiti. 

JBE:  What did your family and friends think when you told them that you were moving to Haiti?

RM: My friends all said, “You’re going to Haiti. You’re going to die.” Because back then AIDS was just beginning to ravage. It was the Four H’s: Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, Heroin Addicts, and Haitians. Thats who got AIDS and I was going to Haiti, right into the teeth of the beast. My mom and my aunts freaked when I told them. Because no one goes back to Haiti. My mom had made a good life for herself in the US, and so had my aunts. They were leading a tough life, fighting, but definitely getting by, working hard. Going back to Haiti was failure

My mom was freaked out. She flew to Haiti with me and we stayed at the Montana Hotel. She said, “You always have to stay at a nice hotel before you go into the ghetto.” She set me up at a school for poor kids in Port-au-Prince that she’d started and got me a bed on the second floor. She sent me $200 a month to look after the school and hooked me up with someone to cook food for me. I didn’t speak any of these people’s language and no one spoke English.  

After a few weeks, my uncle told me that I should go to the Haitian American Institute and learn Creole. And I did that and around this time, I got dengue fever. I didn’t even know what that was. I’m lying in bed. It was hurting. I had a fever. I’m scared of doctors. I can’t understand the language. My friends had told me I was going to die, and there I was. They were right. Prophesy fulfilled, I’m going to die. The yardman and the cook for the school saw that I was in really bad shape and they made me some home remedies and broke the fever. This is November 1985, and Duvalier was still in power. Kids were starting to demonstrate and the military shot them, school kids. The school closed around that time. Streets are empty. Guys are dressed as Darth Vader, running around with machine guns and Uzis shooting people. And I’m from Connecticut. Shit doesn’t roll like that in Connecticut. Maybe it does now, but not then.  

My mom had a house in the hills, and she made the guy who was staying there leave, and I went up there for about three months. I had nothing to do, so I started working on songs, doing singing exercises. I tried getting drunk by myself. I just had nothing to do. People would call and tell me they were shooting people in town. By April I’d decided that I either had to get a job in Haiti, or go back home and go to grad school. To me grad school is just desperation. I was brought up by two college professors and my dad wanted me to be a professor and continue his work. But that’s not my thing. I’m not a scholar. It’s not me. 

I keep hearing these rumors that my half-brother’s family owns the Hotel Oloffson and that the people who are leasing it are about to get thrown out. And I’ve always sensed business opportunities. So I tell my brother’s dad, Max, who I don’t really know, that I’m going to try to get a job at the Oloffson, and he says not to because they’re about to lose their lease. But I need a job. Through a friend, I convinced the people who owned the hotel that if they hire me I’ll help them negotiate a deal to keep the lease. So they give me a job for $100 a week to help them run the place, which seemed like a million dollars. Then I go see Max again about extending the lease, and he politely says no. Max is a really sophisticated guy, lives at the Villa Creole, used to be the Ambassador to Italy, his grandfather had been President of Haiti, just a really correct dude. So I come back to the hotel and tell them that he said no, but I tell them that If they put me in on the deal I don’t see how he’ll say no again. They agree, and I go back and re-propose the deal with me as part of the package. This is happening at the Villa Creole, which is a very exclusive place. They don’t even let drivers into that hotel. So I’m in the lobby proposing this deal, and Max starts yelling at me, telling me that the Oloffson lessees have got the Duvalier henchmen threatening to kill him if he doesn’t give them a lifetime lease. So all this dirt comes out about what they’ve been doing in their attempt to use the Duvaliers to get their way. I’m just a dude trying to get a job! (laughs) I’ve been sitting around of four months and I just want a job. I don’t know anything about this stuff. I don’t know who the fuck Duvalier is. I come back to the Oloffson and tell the lady, without going into detail, “I can’t help you, but if you want me to stay here and work, I will, but I cant help you.” So they pay me one more week. I keep working but they stop paying. 

Then get a job at The El Rancho and the guy’s paying me $800 a month, twice what I was making at the Oloffson. While I’m working there one day, I see Max and he’s hurrying towards me at the entrance of the hotel. As he gets closer, I see he’s got a brown paper shopping bag. And I’m stunned because Max never goes out like this. He comes up the steps, lunges the bag at me, and calls for security to clear the lobby. I open the bag and look inside and it’s all the keys to the Olofson, and he says to me, “Go save the hotel.” I’ve had them ever since. 

JBE: What kind of shape was the Oloffson in at this point? 

RM:  Stripped. No furniture. Nothing. Nothing was working. No water. No electricity. I start by hiring security, and now I’ve got a big, empty, beautiful building with a great vibe. The girl who kicked me out of New York, Blair, I invite her down. I’m like, “Look what I got. I got the Oloffson.”And she goes, “You’re kidding me!” When she comes down she starts figuring out all of the logistics: how many sheets we need, silverware, how many stoves, generators, mattresses, all this shit. And then she calls her dad and says, “I need my money.” 

So, we open the hotel three weeks before the election. Our justification for opening then was that if there’s democracy, we’ll have tourists, and if there’s not, we’ll have journalists. We opened up with six rooms, and then came the election massacre. The one thing we hadn’t planned on was that they’d shoot at the journalists and all of them would leave. Blair left Haiti, and I’m sitting in this empty hotel with one guest, a guy from the Chicago Tribune, who’s now got an exclusive. We’re sitting on the porch having breakfast, at this very table that you and I are sitting at right now, and he looks at me and says, “Rich, you’ve got yourself one hell of a bachelor pad!”  

Three weeks later, they announce another election, for the 17th of January. I call Blair up and tell her that there’s going to be another election, that we need to open up more rooms. She comes down and we open up more rooms, and now we’re up to twelve, and the journalists all come in and we’ve got a full house for like three and a half weeks. This meant that we were over the hump and we could pay the rent and salaries for a few months even if we didn’t have guests. Then there was a coup in June, they threw the guy out, and Blair left again. This other woman checked in to the hotel, and we got engaged. So I was engaged to Blair and this other woman, and then in November I met Lunise and we got married in January and about a week after that, both of the other women called on the same day and I told them thad I’d gotten married and they both bugged. But Blair and I still talk once or twice a year. She wrote me recently on my birthday, so we’re cool. 

JBE:  So this is the beginning of RAM?

RM: Yes. The hotel traditionally did voodoo shows on Monday nights, and so I wanted to start that back up with Lunise as the star of a dance troupe. She was hot. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. Like head over heels. Me marrying Lunise was a scandal all over Port-au-Prince. And I also brought my mom into the show. I figured out that the drums from the folklore was the drums from the voodoo, and so I had what I needed to start my band. I started out playing guitar, and we had two voodoo drummers and a Roland Octapad drum machine. Lunise thought I was losing my mind when I started the band. Our first gig was December 31, 1990, New Year’s Eve. I’d fallen in love with voodoo songs, and we started interpreting those. I don’t think they (the musicians and dancers) would have given me the time of day if Lunise wasn’t there and we weren’t together. Because, to them, I’m a white guy and they didn’t understand me, nor did they understand why I wanted to do what I was doing. But because Lunise was there, they let it happen. Some of the original line up are still around. 

JBE: What was the original line up and what was the early material like? 

RM: Three voodoo drums, the drum machine, guitar, I moved to bass, and three girls singing and dancing. Lunise was pregnant when we started so she wasn’t in the first shows. We started playing on Thursdays, like we still do. It was kind of punk rock mixed with voodoo, and we were playing some Groceries songs. When we first started we made videos and we’d bring them to all the TV stations and they played it, because they thought it was some crazy shit. And TV was huge at the time, and videos were still new here. After about the fourth video it really caught on. We made a record, and had a CD signing party where about 400 people showed up. 

JBE: During this first decade, you became known as a political band. How did that unfold?

RM: We were getting a lot of heat from the military government. Or songs were interpreted as anti-military. When Aristide came back, they put us on a carnival float. We were getting huge. But then they wanted to give us lyrics and songs. One time they gave us lyrics, and I didn’t understand the ramifications, and I put them into a song and did it in a Carnival show, and I was surprised when it showed up in a political poster. I knew right away, that just wasn’t me. So then they brought us a whole song to sing, and I was like, “Fuck you.” But they gave that song to another band and they promoted the shit out of it, and then I had a song that got equally popular. It was a voodoo song that they interpreted as being political, and they threw me out of Carnival. Then the next year they forced me to play at Carnival, and they tried to flip the float. They tried to kill the band and a bunch bystanders died. So, the next year we didn’t go out and they started saying I was afraid to play. But I had to lower the profile of the band. There was just too much heat and people were getting killed, so I made a conscious decision to lower the profile of the band. I stopped doing Carnival, and if I did play, we wouldn’t promote it, no videos or anything. I lowered the profile until about 2006 when that year’s Carnival was billed as “A Salute to Local Culture,” which was, to me, them inviting me to come back. That’s when I started trying to do hits again and we started touring the country. Before 2006, I wasn’t allowed to tour the country. 

JBE: Videos have been a big part of how you promote RAM’s music. Way before YouTube, you were making videos to air on Haitian TV stations and you seem to have a lot of fun making music videos. What led to your interest in that medium?

RM: Our third album ended up being this rock-voodoo thing that people here just didn’t understand. They were like, “What the fuck is this?” That bugged me out a bit, so I started making videos to give people perspective on it. And I think they started to understand it after a while. But then I realized that there was this in-Haiti/out-of-Haiti thing, because I’d always imagined my music as being for an out-of-Haiti audience. So after that third album, I began to think in-Haiti— how do I make music for Haitians? 

JBE: When were you initiated as a voodoo priest how did that change your music? 

RM: That was in 2001. I just got a whole different view. It was pretty amazing, and I don’t know if everyone has the same experience that I had. I think I was supposed to get initiated because I started having dreams. People telling me things in dreams. People get initiated for different reasons, but for me it was the dreams. I don’t regret it… anything, especially not the voodoo. 

JBE: I remember you saying that the only thing you ever planned for in your entire life was your son’s and daughter’s college education, that everything else has just been…

RM: Rolling with the flow. I’ve been in the right current my whole life.