Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Christopher L. Mitchell
The Hotel Oloffson is the most storied structure in Port-au-Prince, and probably the most unusual. It’s the sort of place where, one presumes, every imaginable scenario that can happen in life has, in fact, happened.
This 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion has found itself in the middle of Haitian affairs for over 100 years. Built in the 1890s by the Sams, a prominent family that produced two of the country’s presidents, it was used as a hospital by the American military during its occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934.
Werner Gustav Oloffson, a German-Swedish seaman, converted the grounds into a hotel in 1935. It acquired a bohemian character after the 1950s, when it was taken over by a French photographer, attracting artists, musicians and writers. Jackie Onassis, Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger stayed here during Haiti’s brief moment as a tourism hotspot in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. (“The poolside crush rivals that of the Beverly Hills Hotel,” People Magazine wrote in 1980.) Notably, it was the inspiration for the madhouse-like Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, and the 1967 Elizabeth Taylor movie by the same name.
Today, the weathered Oloffson — an oddly quaint place, despite its coordinates just outside of Port-au-Prince’s busy city center — is also well known as the site of weekly performances given by the band, RAM. Almost every Thursday night since 1990, the group, led by the hotel’s current proprietor, American-born Richard Auguste Morse, has held court inside the Oloffson lobby. This is an event of cultural, musical and religious significance, as RAM are Haiti’s foremost practitioners of mizik rasin (roots music), which combines traditional Haitian Vodou ceremonial and folkloric music with elements of rock.
Lunise Morse, the matriarch and lead vocalist of RAM, performing with the group at the Hotel Oloffson in March.
RAM’s residency offers both a weekly release for the Haitians in attendance, and a convenient opportunity for hotel guests and foreigners in Port-au-Prince to enjoy a window into Haitian culture. It’s not uncommon to hear dozens of languages being spoken, or to find local and international political figures taking in the sounds. It’s also an opportunity for those who might not otherwise have a reason to be at the Oloffson to wander its lush, green grounds, or the hallways with rooms named after famous former guests like John Barrymore and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
On a Thursday night in March, I found myself with an audience with Morse, immediately following RAM’s customary weekly performance, and had the opportunity to ask him some questions about RAM, the Oloffson, and his decision to uproot himself from America to Haiti in the ‘80s.
“I came to Haiti looking for rhythms,” Morse, a tall, white-haired man in his late 50s, tells me in the hotel’s courtyard. He’s wearing a long, white tunic and colored mouchwa (handkerchiefs) befitting his status as a practicing houngan, or vodou priest.
Morse’s own story dovetails curiously with the property he now manages under a long-term lease. (“We’ve been leasing it for years, and now we are trying to buy it,” he tells me.)
Members of RAM
He was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Woodbridge, Connecticut, near Yale University, where both of his parents would land teaching jobs. His father, also called Richard Morse, was an American sociologist; his mother is Emerante de Predines, the first Haitian singer to sign a record contract. His half brother on his mother’s side, Jean-Max Sam, was the grandson of Demosthenes Son, who built the Olofsson in the 1890s. Former president and Haitian music superstar Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly is his first cousin.
Despite these familial connections, Morse’s suburban New England upbringing left him distant from Haitian culture, he says. “When I was a kid and I would meet a Haitian, I would say: ‘My mom’s Haitian.’ And they would say, ‘Parlez vous Kreyol?’ and I would say “No!” And they would say, ‘You’re not Haitian, dude.’”
A visit to the country as a teenager awoke an urge to connect with his roots. “I came here and spent two months with my cousins, when I was like 16,” he recalls. “I liked it, I liked the vibe.”
Morse attended Princeton, where he formed a punk band, The Groceries, and studied anthropology. In the early 1980s, he began working for Steve Rubell, owner of iconic New York nightclubs Studio 54 and the Palladium, where he worked alongside the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
A vodou shrine at the Oloffson
“[Steve] was thinking I was getting into management and administration, but I was thinking, ‘I want to be in a band,’” Morse recalls. But his band broke up, and his girlfriend broke up with him. “So I left. I came down here and learned Kreyol when I was 28, found Haitian rhythms, and we’ve been making music ever since.”
Within a few years of arriving in Port-au-Prince in 1985, Morse had taken over the Oloffson, met his future wife, Lunise, and formed RAM, with Lunise as its lead singer.
Legends surround Morse’s obtaining of the Olofsson property. One, involving a cab-driving vodou priest, was shared on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, in 2011. “Whatever you heard is true,” Morse confirms. “We were coming from Katherine Dunham’s house, we were in a traffic jam. The guy said, ‘Do you want the hotel?’ I said, ‘No.’ [Laughs] He said, ‘Do you want the hotel?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Say yes, Say yes! You want the hotel.’ I said ‘OK, yes, I want the hotel.’ He said: ‘Give me $20.’”
As one of his first orders of business, he hired a troupe of folkloric dancers to entertain guests at the hotel. Lunise was among the members.
The cylindrical metal horns known as vaksen (or vaccine) arranged onstage during a recent RAM performance.
“My wife was a dancer,” Morse says. “And once I found out she could sing, I just had her sing. She brings joy to people. It’s amazing.”
Inside and out, the Oloffson looks like you imagine it must have 60, 0r 100, years ago. (“Rarely can one step so thoroughly into the pages of a book,” Bourdain commented on No Reservations, as he thumbed through The Comedians on the Olofsson’s front porch.) An exception is the folkloric Haitian art which colors the property in various forms. A shrine to Baron Samedi, the tophat-wearing loa of the dead, greets guests on arrival. It is customary to touch him for good luck. In the rear of the hotel lobby, behind the stage where RAM performs on Thursdays, a brick wall is covered with frescoes depicting vodou ritual.
Morse, once an outsider to his own culture, was initiated as a houngan in 2002. RAM’s music incorporates lyrics, melodies and instruments associated with vodou music, presented in the format of a rock band with electric guitars and a drum kit.
For peak RAM, head to YouTube and call up the video for “Jacomel,” shot on the Olofsson premises, in 1999. Last year’s greatest hits compilation, MadiGra, is also a good primer.
“I came to Haiti looking for rhythms…” Richard Morse, after a RAM performance, in the Hotel Olofsson kitchen.
RAM’s performances at the Oloffson became a flashpoint for resistance during the military junta of Raoul Cedras, particularly after their version of the Haitian folk song “Fey” was embraced as an anthem for the candidacy of Jean-Paul Aristide. Morse has been targeted in assassination attempts, including one involving RAM’s truck at Kanaval in 1999, in which members and affiliates of the band were killed.
After his cousin Michel Martelly became president in 2011, Morse was brought into the administration as a special envoy for political affairs. He abruptly quit in 2013, citing corruption and mismanagement.
In January 2010, as buildings all around it crumbled during Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake, the old, creaky Oloffson escaped the major damage suffered seemingly all around it. In the moments and days following the disaster, Morse became a pivotal source of updates and information from Port-au-Prince, via RAM’s Twitter feed, @RAMHaiti.
Morse’s role onstage is essentially as conductor, guiding the 14-piece band through transitions, and occasionally joining Lunise on vocals, while taking occasional swigs from a bottle of Barbancourt.
William Morse, son of Richard and Lunise, is RAM’s lead guitarist.
The couple’s son, William, plays a featured role in RAM’s current incarnation, having recently joined as lead guitarist. He shreds. “My son grew up here, at the rehearsals,” Morse tells me, gesturing around the property. “He didn’t even know it was a band. He just showed up and started playing. My daughter danced with us when we went to the Cannes Film Festival. It’s just in the family.”
The first new RAM recording in a decade, Manman m se Ginen, was released last year. It’s great. RAM is a jam band, though. Like the Grateful Dead or Phish, their studio recordings only hint at their live powers.
A RAM performance is an organic, visual experience. Vaksen, the cylindrical, single-note horns central to Haitian roots music and rara —the folkloric street processions which happen around Haiti’s rural areas during Lent — are arranged on the stage like props for much of the show. Until they’re in use, creating an enveloping swirl of sound that invigorates dancers who might have lost a few steps during their marathon sets.
During the end of one such set on a recent Thursday, as the crowd at the Olofsson began to thin, RAM was joined onstage by Régine Chassagne, the Haitian-Canadian singer of The Arcade Fire, who sang “Haiti” from the popular indie rock band’s 2004 debut album, Funeral. The two acts have formed a close connection, having performed together in Canada and several cities across Haiti. After the show, members of the band rushed over to catch up with Chassagne.
Régine Chassagne of the Arcade Fire and friends.
My recollections of the evening, my first at a RAM show, are hazy. (Morse’s answers were recorded, fortunately). After a day spent flying back and forth between Cap-Haitien, in the north of Haiti, with a group of fellow travelers, I was exhausted. Glass after glass of 5-Etoile Barbancourt Rum over lime and ice gave my feet a second wind, but no greater mental clarity. Besides, the rum and the drums from RAM’s rhythm section can put one in a trance-like state. But I can remember thinking this is it— one of those essential life experiences that everyone should experience.
I asked Morse why he has kept the Thursday residency going for so long. He’s performed on the same stage almost every week, barring occasional dates and commitments overseas, and the interference of disasters both political and natural, for nearly 30 years. “People keep coming,” he says. “Sometimes people make plane reservations and hotel reservations six months in advance to be here on a Thursday.”
Special thanks to Stephanie Barnes/Marriott Port-au-Prince, Steve Bennett, Bobby Chauvet, Anya Fouché and Flora Cross for their assistance with this article. Book a room at the Hotel Oloffson here, and check the RAM Twitter page for updates on the band.