By Tequila Minsky
BROOKLYN – The late Toto Bissainthe was better known as a sultry singer in her more than 40-year artistic career. But to her daughter, Milena Sandler, she was more than that.
“My mother was really an actress,” says Sandler, surrounded by large black and white images of theatrical performances of Bissainthe.
The multi-media tribute to Bisainthe was held last week at Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab.
Nearly 100 people gathered to pay homage to, honoring and preserving, the legacy of this Grande Dame of Haitian culture who died 26 years ago.
The opposite wall exhibited photos of the Cap Haitien-born chanteuse in vocal performance.
“There were things she wanted to say that she couldn’t in theatre, and she turned to song,” Sandler said.
Bissainthe left Haiti early to pursue acting in France, and in 1956 she was a founding member of Les Griots, the first theatrical troupe with all black actors.
Seventeen years later she established herself as singer-songwriter-composer there, performing moving original compositions that paid tribute to the lives, struggles, miseries and spirituality of working class and rural Haitians.
After 30 years in Paris and a few years in Martinique and Dominican Republic, she returned to Haiti following the departure of Duvalier, dreaming to help rebuild the country. She was bitterly disappointed with the country’s continuing dysfunction. Bissainthe died in 1994.
Succinctly articulated, jazz singer Pauline Jean says, “Toto is the Nina Simone of Haiti.”
Haitians came to know her as a vocalist, interpreting traditional songs as well as singing songs that brought the voiceless, missing, oppressed, humiliated and defeated figures in contemporary history to the forefront.
Along with the photos, in the exhibit, Ipads offered audio and video testimonies from many who knew or worked with Toto. The audience was introduced to Bissainthe through a screening of archival film footage and then the concert began.
Grammy nominated flutist Nathalie Joachim (Flatbush-raised, now living in Chicago) performed on flute and voice Soufle Van (about the slave ship voyage), and Lamizè pou dous (about misery) and Papa Loko (about weather).
Brooklyn-based, raised-in-Haiti, singer, songwriter and folkloric dancer, Riva Nyri Precil sang Pa Bliye (two separated lovers), Dèy (about grieving) and Ezili (a call for women to join forces).
Philly-based Haitian-born Talie interpreted traditional songs—Chante and Loray Kale. A capella, she sang Solèy Danbala.
Together, the three performed a beautiful arrangement of Papa Danbala.
The house band included Monvelyno Alexis (guitar), Frederic Las Fargeas (piano), Hiroyuki Matsuura (keyboard), Bobby Raymond (bass).
Riva also superbly MCed the event, acknowledging other singers in the audience—(the queen) Emeline Michel, Melanie Charles, and Pauline Jean, to name a few.
Many in the audience didn’t know who Bissainthe was prior to the evening. Among the positive feedback presenter Haiti Cultural Exchange received, one audience member wrote,
“I was so moved by the energy in the room on Friday — it was a visceral reaction, a homecoming of sorts–and I found out quickly I was not alone in this feeling after speaking to others in the room.”
Riva commented on what an honor and challenge it was to be part of the tribute.
“Toto was such a great performer who immersed herself— and she was so theatrical. I needed to choose songs poignant and substantial,” Riva said.
Sandler and her husband musician Joel Widmaier through their Fondation Haiti Jazz lead the traveling exhibit and partnered with HCX for the Brooklyn musical component.
The exhibition first opened at the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (MUPANAH) in Haiti in 2014 and has since traveled to Paris, Guadeloupe, and Miami. It will open in Montreal on February 15 (through February 28) at the Moroccan Cultural Center.
PHOTO credits: Tequila Minsky for The Haitian Times