Uncovering Rock and Roll Roots in Southern Haiti
Jacmel, the principal city along Haiti’s quiet and beachy south coast, has long been celebrated as one of the Caribbean’s prime centers for art (a reputation only disputed, I found upon visiting, by artists actually living there… more on this another day). So, it wasn’t surprising to find the imaginative symbols painted on this bright blue dock house.
I had seen symbols like these on my earlier travels through Haiti, admiring the beautiful simplicity of its lines, curlycues, and obvious ties to religion. I never thought to ask what they were before, though, and I’d certainly never thought there could be any links between them and rock and roll.
This one symbol in particular, though, is at the very heart of the popular American musical genre.
The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and most every other band or musician you might consider enshrining in a “Mount Rushmore of rock and roll” traces their strongest influences to one man – Robert Johnson.
A legendary Delta Blues master, Johnson is the musician to whom a musical version of the Faustian myth is most associated; the blues man who went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in order to gain fame and riches.
I learned later that the symbol above carries echoes of the myth. It represents the Haitian Vodou spirit, or loa known as Kalfou, The Master of The Crossroads.
Like his twin brother Legba, the loa most closely associated with the devil, Kalfou controls the crossroads, or rather the passage of loa and magic forces from the the spirit world into our own. He’s generally seen as a mean and intimidating loa, though one with great powers to help people deal with their problems.
Problems for Robert Johnson that might’ve included guitar lessons. As the legend goes, he went from being a terrible musician to a master virtually overnight, an alleged visit to The Crossroads the only explanation.