Utne Reader is proud to premiere “Kote’w Te Ye” by Haitian songwriter Beken from his new album Troubadour, available May 4.
Like most of the people in Haiti, songwriter Beken (given name Jean Prosper Dauphin) has experienced more than his fare share of hardship. Losing his leg in a car accident at the age of 12, Beken seemed destined to live the life of a malare—the ones considered most unfortunate in Haitian society. Beken didn’t allow his circumstances to define him, though; in addition to earning a high school education he also learned how to play guitar in order to support himself. He even toured the United States briefly in the 1980s thanks to the initial interest in his brand of melancholy Haitian folk music.
Though well-known in Haiti and with those familiar with Haitian music, Beken is still very much one of the many Haitians just trying to live day to day. In the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake, a New York Times photographer found Beken living in a temporary camp with thousands of other homeless and destitute Haitians. Once again, luck was on Beken’s side as his rediscovery caught the attention of the U.S. distributor Thirty Tigers and producer Chris Donohue.
Though it took several years, Donohue and Beken were able to work together on a new batch of songs that would become Troubadour, his first release on a U.S. label. The lead single is a song called “Kote’w Te Ye,” which translates to “Where You Have You Been?” As Donohue explains, the song is Beken’s way of addressing the rumors swirling about his whereabouts since the earthquake:
“In the song, he dispels various rumors of his death and political exile, reassures his fans that he has not abandoned his ‘wooden guitar’ or his ‘beautiful profession,’ and asserts that ‘whatever your nationality may be, as soon as you hear me you must be consoled.’ The passionate urgency of Beken’s vocal performance in ‘Kote’w Te Ye,’ supported by the song’s infectious groove and melodies, leave no doubt that the much-revered Haitian maestro has returned with fire in his belly and much left to say to his fans at home and abroad.”
Here are the translated lyrics to “Kote’w Te Ye”:
Since a very long time I’ve had a wooden guitar
I’m singing for the Holy Trinity
I mustn’t forget Saint Cecilia
Who’s the mother of all musicians
The fans have been impatient
They’re asking where I’ve been
Man, Beken, what are you doing to me this way?
Where have you been, horseman Beken?
Where have you been?
Such a beautiful profession as I have in my hand
How would you want me to abandon it?
It’s not everybody who can find such a gift
That’s my gift that the good Lord gave me
The political crisis made me be silent
They walk around saying I don’t sing any more
But no no no that ‘s not true
Ask me a question
Yes, I know very well that Beken is a serum
That carries a solution to every level of society
Whatever your nationality may be
As soon as you hear me you must be consoled.
(Seven times six,) truth under the drum
Blow the conch shell, I’ll cry, Advance!
I’m bringing a new serum for us
(I am) the medicine
Rumor’s running around, the news is spreading
In Miami they say that I’m dead
The fans say that it’s a lie
The last time I was with them in Haiti
The New York community called to me
What is this news I am hearing?
I have to go back to Paris to sing
Let me cry out!