Lelaine Lau is a fixture in NY nightlife, working at fabuloso places like the Breslin, Mercer Kitchen, Hudson Hotel, Balthazar, Bungalow 8 and a ton of etcetera’s. She is the founder of Saloniere 403, a cultural salon. While most of us have only offered our relegated thoughts to the continuing disaster in Haiti, Lelaine has gone down there to try to do something.
What was the purpose of your trip to Haiti? I teamed up with a foundation aligned with Columbia University’s Earth Institute to explore potential educational and cultural partnerships which we hope will help to uplift, celebrate and heal Haiti and her people. The project is centered around the content recently released music of ‘Alan Lomax in Haiti.’ Lomax was an ethnomusicologist, who, at the age of 20, was commissioned by the Library of Congress to go to Haiti and explore the roots of folk music in 1936. For a year he traveled around Haiti to record traditional Haitian music, celebrations and rituals. His recordings include everything from Rara, Troubadour, Merengue, Carnaval, children’s songs and around 90 hours of audio and film. This treasure trove of vintage Haitian culture remained unmastered for decades until after his death.
The idea of recovering and restoring cultural works, museums and other places of heritage brings about an excellent opportunity to dovetail with other efforts in preserving Haiti’s rich cultural history. The relief efforts are addressing immediate needs, while our efforts address the long-term rebuilding of national pride through educational and preservation initiatives. We hope to develop a strong cultural curriculum alongside Haitian educators and scholars, while also working with groups who further preservation and repatriation. Who did you go with? I went with a friend, Kimberly Green. She’s based out of Miami and is president of her family’s foundation, The Green Family Foundation, which has been funding anti-poverty development and healthcare interventions in Haiti for 10 years. A few years ago, she began funding the first Millennium Village Project in Haiti alongside with the Earth Institute, an initiative spearheaded by noted economist Jeffrey Sachs. The project is geared toward attaining the UN’s Millenium goals by developing sustainable and long-term economic solutions by empowering the country on a community level, so these villages may lift themselves out of extreme poverty. It is a hand up, not a handout. I must add that Kimberly is a woman who has a led a truly remarkable life. I am honored and humbled to be her friend and so inspired by all she has done. She is a free and kindred spirit, and has made tangible contributions to the world and those less fortunate. We actually have discussions about developing new terminology for ‘philanthropists’ like her to denote not only those who give in order to promote systemic change, which is typically a harder sell in the charitable world, but those who are also willing to roll up their sleeves, do the work and get dirty. I just don’t feel the words charitable or philanthropist do justice to what she does. How did you get involved? Kimberly and her good friend Fisher Stevens had come up with the idea of doing radio PSAs using some of the Lomax material to highlight the history and culture of Haiti instead of just lamenting on the grief and devastation. I ended up collaborating on the text read by Sting, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts and got a major crash course in the history of Haiti during the 48 hour process. This is a girl who really has great ideas and knows how to make them happen! Was this your first trip to Haiti? Yes, I had never visited an impoverished nation, much less one that was in a state of emergency. I came almost two months after the quake, but the devastation was still profound. It was a roller-coaster ride of conflicting emotions. There is no denying the horrific conditions they are living in, but the Haitian culture, it’s people and the enthusiasm that surrounded this project was euphoric. What was your first impression? The dust created a dark haze that covered the city. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, even as a native Angeleno. We could barely make out the coastline. The thing that struck me the most was the very poignant entrepreneurial spirit. People were selling things on every corner, people moving with purpose, one man striding along with a shirt, tie and tie clip. The industriousness is impressive, but it’s not regulated which is a set-up for another economic disaster. I saw a popcorn machine, shoe shine and car wash on the edges of camps. Some of the camps are not officially acknowledged or serviced because they fear the camps might become permanent down the line. What surprised you about Haiti? There appeared to be a sense of outward normalcy for businesses and for the upper-middle class. We met with many arts and cultural groups, business owners and department ministers who were back at work to try to instill a sense of normalcy. Of course we heard horrible stories, many people lost family members, but we also visited private homes, some of which had no, or very little damage at all. Even though they weren’t affected on a personal level, they still were passionate about the rebuilding, which colored almost all of our interactions with the local Haitians. Another thing I was surprised about was the number of hotels and restaurants that were open for business. I learned that some of the owners had conflicting feelings about reopening, especially with camps very close by, but they were supporting the economy and families that worked there. I was given pause one evening when I heard an unsubstantiated rumor that 2 people were kidnapped outside of the restaurant we were in while we were eating inside. I was quite impressed by the quality of the food. As we’re on the topic of hospitality, I have to say that one of my biggest disappointments was not getting to experience RAM night at the Hotel Oloffson. RAM is a Voudou Rara band that throws a legendary party every Thursday night, which I’m told is one of those absolute musts. The hotel and the grounds are very grand and huge – the hotel itself has a storied past. Understandably, the Haitians are still in mourning, so now is not the right time, but I eagerly anticipate the day I can have the experience.
Did you meet some interesting people? I got to meet a man known as the Mango Man, he works with small farmers who supply his mango-exporting business, and he was delightful and a wonderful fountain of information as to the way things work in Haiti. All of the people involved in the arts group are just really soulful people. I think the evening spent with this group was my favorite. We broke bread together, shared lots of wonderful ideas of our hopes for Haitian recovery and they taught me how to play the bongos Jean, our driver, was hilarious and a bit of a playboy– each of his girls had a different ringtone! A couple of times he would take down these back roads that were unpaved, narrow, even narrower by rubble, where we didn’t think had an outlet and inevitably we’d find ourselves back on the main road, having bypassed most of the traffic. I was really excited about getting to meet Paul Farmer. He is one of the founders of Partners in Health and is a legend for his work and dedication to the people of Haiti. His work has influenced the policies of World Health Organization for treating TB and HIV/AIDS. We also had a chance to visit Sean Penn’s operation and I came away deeply moved by his passion and commitment, both in the immediate and the long-term. I was tremendously inspired by the Dean of Haiti’s Quisqueya University Jacky Lumarque. The university is considered to be the best in Haiti and was completely demolished by the quake just as it was about to open. Post-quake, when many foreign universities offered to take in his students the Dean said, “The University is here, it is people, not buildings. It is in our hearts and minds.” The students are currently volunteering in Haiti and getting hands-on experience across sectors such as medical, psycho-social, education and child development.
What did you learn about Haiti? I learned that Haiti is a country that grabs you and doesn’t let go. I felt it, and in all of the reading I’ve done in the last week, about various artists, even in a National Geographic article from the 30s, there it is time and again – Haiti over the years has caught the imagination and hearts of so many people.
What would you leave us with? Early in the trip, I came across a work of graffiti depicting Haiti crying as she’s asking for help. I later learned that this was the handiwork of a young man named Jerry, a man that was behind much of the graffiti around the city. After doing some research on him, I discovered a really cool collaboration that he’s participating in with a NYC arts professor named Pedro Lasche. Anyone in the international community can send a message to the Haitians in Port au Prince that will be interpreted into a work of graffiti by Jerry, for $25. I just think it’s a really cool initiative. In the same vein, the upcoming NY ArtExpo, which is running from March 25 to the 28, has given a booth to a group of Haiti-based art galleries for the duration. All proceeds from this booth will go to support the rebuilding of the Centre D’Art in Haiti. The Centre D’Art was instrumental in building international interest in Haitian art in the 1940s. My understanding is the booth will carry a wide array of Haitian art, so please go find yourself a new favorite artist and support the preservation and restoration of Haiti’s cultural heritage! And finally, I ask that people support the development of a watchdog group, which will hold the many, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Haiti accountable for the money, which at last count amounted to $3.8 billion dollars, raised for relief and rebuilding. It is time for organizations operating in Haiti to be vetted, to be transparent and to be coordinated and organized so that efforts and funds are not squandered. The Haitians have a right to know where this money is going.
Groups Cinema Under the Stars: This group has been screening films in the camps, sometimes working in partnership with international groups. Friends of FOKAL: Implements a variety of programs aimed at supporting the development of children and the young, youth organizations, youth civil society associations, the peasants and women’s organizations. They are partnered with libraries all over Haiti, and provide cultural programming and activities. Haiti Aid Watchdog: This group is working to independently track the impact of the relief and humanitarian efforts in Haiti, facilitate communication among partners, encourage the Haitian population to play a more active role in this initiative and ensure that the majority of the Haitian people really benefit from this aid.