From GoldenEye to Port-au-Prince

The mission: bring musical instruments to Haiti. The pilot: Jimmy Buffett. The first stop: a splendid and decaying hotel immortalized by Graham Greene. V.F.’s peripatetic Tom Freston visits a beleaguered nation and meets up with some of those who are giving it a hand, including Sean Penn.

Related: Filmmakers Jacques del Conte and Chandra Ratner travel through Haiti and tour rescue efforts by Artists for Peace and Justice.

VF January 2012
Tom Freston

Left, the Jimmy Buffett Suite; right, the Hotel Oloffson.

For the past few years I have traveled south when the weather gets cold with my friend Jimmy Buffett, the troubadour of the Caribbean. Jimmy has a string of restaurants down there (that song “Margaritaville” has created an empire), and he drops by in his seaplane for checkups and that personal touch.

This year I was keen to go to Haiti, a country that people who visit say they can never quite leave behind. In April, Haiti elected a musician, Michel Martelly, as president by more than a 60 percent margin. His stage handle is “Sweet Mickey.” You don’t see a lot of musicians being elected president these days, though I see that the singer Youssou N’Dour is running for that office in Senegal, so this is a trend worth keeping an eye on. Jimmy, a longtime Haitian visitor, told me he had some musical instruments to deliver to a music school he supports there. I met up with him at GoldenEye, a small and magical hotel on Jamaica’s lush northeast coast. It’s run by the record producer Chris Blackwell and was once the estate of Ian Fleming, the British spy turned James Bond novelist. We were to fly from Jamaica to Port-au-Prince. The plan was to go to the school in the old town of Jacmel and deliver Jimmy’s instruments, and then visit Sean Penn in Pétionville and tour his projects and camps.

We boarded Jimmy’s single-engine turbo-prop in mid-afternoon at the new Ian Fleming International Airport. It was the only plane there. With Jimmy behind the stick we headed north, flying low straight up to Haiti. It was a smooth flight and the sky was a perfect Caribbean blue. Small, white powder-puff clouds edged the horizon.

“Penn is a self-made general, commanding his own army. He’s in concrete dust pretty much all the time. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a midsize house he shares with 50 co-workers.”

We landed, cleared customs, and inched toward our hotel through a maze of hand-painted buses, smoke-belching trucks, and swarms of motorcycles, bikes, and people. The roadside was one continuous bazaar. Automobile floor mats must be in high demand—I saw them on sale everywhere, hanging from trees. When evening fell, Port-au-Prince was darker than any city I had ever seen. Most lights seemed to be from motor vehicles and kerosene lamps. Three million people live here.

After an hour’s journey we reached our destination: the Hotel Oloffson. Large gates opened up to a short hill lined with palm trees. This is, perhaps, the most famous hotel in the Caribbean, immortalized by another British spy turned novelist, Graham Greene. The hotel was a central character in The Comedians, published in 1966: “With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air at night of a Charles Addams house in a New Yorker cartoon. You expected a witch to open the door to you, or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him.” A gingerbread masterpiece from the 1880s, it is now in a state of exquisite decay. It was the only hotel in Port-au-Prince to survive the earthquake.

The rooms and suites have names: the Graham Greene (of course), the Mick Jagger (by the pool), the Jonathan Demme. Jimmy himself was booked into the “Jimmy Buffett Suite,” the hotel’s best (according to Jimmy). My room, the “John Barrymore,” was right next door. A quick inventory revealed a bare, upright mattress leaning against the wall, a dresser missing its top drawer, a broken ceiling fan, a smashed telephone, assorted pieces of Haitian art, and a sampling of wasp nests out on the porch. A towel and a wrapped sliver of soap lay on the bed. I’ve seen worse. A man working there told me that the hotel was “full of spirits” and that when he slept in my room, he always heard a woman screaming. A sexual scream, I asked? “No, just screaming . . . but don’t worry, it’s faint.”

The most popular and politically charged band in Haiti, RAM, plays the Oloffson every Thursday night. It is quite the social occasion, bringing together people from all of Haitian society, plus local government officials and foreign aid workers. In the old days, the clientele included spies and secret police. RAM is led by the hotel’s manager, Richard Morse, an affable 54-year-old Haitian-American, a Princeton graduate, and a former punk rocker who moved to Haiti in 1985. He was an atheist then and is now a Vodou priest. These days, Vodou (which we Americanize as “voodoo”) is an official “state religion” with a complex and sophisticated belief system. “Zombification” is not really part of it—and, fortunately for us, is now outlawed by the Haitian Penal Code. (But are the “walking dead” really something that mere laws can contain?)

Part of RAM as seen from the balcony outside my room.

RAM came together in 1990, as a way of drawing customers to the hotel. It plays “mizik rasin,” a hybrid Haitian musical style, combining dance music with voodoo rhythms and lyrics. It’s political and hypnotic. Richard Morse calls it “vodou rock ’n’ roots.” RAM has 14 players: guitars, keyboards, drum kit, and voodoo drums and horns (the horns must be five feet long). Richard is the songwriter, and he and his wife, Lunise, sing lead vocals. There are two female backup singers. They make an earth-shaking sound. It’s said that some people actually go into trances at their performances. As political provocateurs, they’ve been banned in the past, are controversial always, get death threats, and have even survived an assassination attempt. By the time RAM kicked off, at 11, the hotel was jammed, inside and out, and beautifully dressed Haitian women were crammed into the front row. I ended up sharing a table with a bunch of off-duty policemen drinking rum punches. A woman with the band came around to pour holy water on our hands. Swigging from bottles of Barbancourt rum, the band played for hours, building to an ecstatic and joyous climax.

Much has been written about the heroic earthquake-relief efforts by the Haitians themselves, by the international community, and by Sean Penn in particular. No less an authority than the U.S. military admits that his group, the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, runs the best-organized camp in the country, feeding and sheltering some 60,000 people on what was once an 18-hole golf course in Pétionville. Penn is a self-made general, commanding his own army. He’s in concrete dust pretty much all the time. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a midsize house he shares with 50 co-workers. Other celebrated names passed through Haiti in the days after the earthquake. Some made real contributions. But Sean Penn was not passing through. He came to work, and he came to stay. He gave Jimmy and me an impressive tour of the work the organization does in the camps, their demolition activity, their clinics and community centers. (Visit to learn more.)

One day after breakfast Penn traveled with Jimmy, Richard Morse, and me to Jacmal, a scenic town on the southern coast that was once a tourist center. We delivered the instruments Jimmy had brought to the music school. Later that day we went to a funeral to hear the band from the school perform some classical pieces. The band members were in spotless white uniforms—how they achieve such immaculate crispness in that daunting environment I do not know. They played beautifully, with pride and dignity.

The band at the funeral in Jacmal.

I did actually meet President Martelly at the airport, on the tarmac. He was being mobbed en route to his helicopter, which he said would take him to some rural area to “spread some hope around.” Let’s hope he does. Music by itself is not going to fix much, but, especially in Haiti, it inspires hope and hope inspires everything else.