Alumni Profile: Carole Demesmin Arty '79
The island nation of Haiti has rich and diverse cultural traditions. One of the country’s revered contemporary musicians, Carole Demesmin Arty ’79, has gained popularity by blending her Haitian folk roots with the skills she learned as a Berklee student. In fact, she credits her Berklee education not only with giving her the skills to develop her voice but also with helping her to preserve it many years later.
During her high school years, Demesmin emigrated from the small coastal city of Léogâne, Haiti, to America for high school, and later entered Berklee as the college’s second Haitian student ever. She enjoyed the chance to learn and inform. “One o’clock in the morning was the best time,” she recalls. “We were all together talking, sharing music.” She recalls the “excitement of having your pieces played” and a recital where she paired a Haitian folk song with a classical composition from Italy.
Demesmin’s professors taught her to be prepared to perform no matter what. “If you have a cold and you have a concert, you have to use your technique,” she explained. From one Berklee professor, she learned how to use her voice without injury. “It’s called larynx singing,” she says “You open up your larynx and sing even if your throat is hurting.” She cites these techniques for helping her to extend her range and improve her accuracy.
A Potent Cultural Blend
Demesmin integrated information she took from lessons, classes, and visiting-artist clinics with her own musical traditions. “I kind of made a mixture of what I learned from their technique with [Haitian] culture,” she recalls. “There is a freedom in my notes, in the way that I sing, that is similar to jazz.”
It didn’t take long for Demesmin’s style to blossom. As a Berklee student, she began working with Haitian songwriter Jean-Claude Martineau to develop her politically themed 1979 debut Carole Maroule. The album made a splash among Haitians. A year later, she put out a second album, with alumnus Michael Cohen ’76 serving as her arranger and conductor.
Immediately, music lovers recognized her as an innovator, recounts Charlot Lucien, a storyteller and the cofounder of the Haitian Artists Assembly of Massachusetts. At the time, fans of Haitian popular music mainly wanted to dance. But with Demesmin, the message rang out. The music “just mesmerized. It was something brand-new,” says Lucien. “There’s something about it people really respond to.”
As Demesmin’s career progressed, her horizons expanded to encompass spiritual interests. During the early 1980s, she returned to Haiti to further explore the indigenous culture. She began studying the Vodou religion and eventually became initiated as a priestess.
Bump in the Road
About five years ago, Demesmin learned that her thyroid needed to be removed—bad news for any vocalist. “The doctor believed that I would not be able to sing anymore,” she recalls. But before the operation, Demesmin finished the album she was recording, thinking it might be her last.
After the surgery, she continued practicing with the vocal techniques she learned at Berklee to avoid the injured parts of her throat. It paid off. And while she no longer hits her highest notes, she can still sing—as she proved during our phone interview by bursting into the tune “Summertime.” She credits Berklee with helping her “to survive and accept the high and the lowest times . . . to control success and make the best of it and share [the] fruits with others.”
Demesmin performs only four to five times a year now, but she stays plenty busy nonetheless. She’s working on her fifth album to honor the musical pioneers in Haiti. She recently acted and sang in the film Life outside of Pearl, about a Haitian family adapting to life in New Jersey. She puts on cultural-exchange concerts that highlight Haitian music, poetry, and film.
Indeed, all genres of the arts are equally worthy to Demesmin, who has painted since childhood. Five years ago, her love for art and for her nation spurred yet another project: United Haitian Artists (UHA), which she founded to protect and promote artists. When a member has new artwork or a new performance, UHA sends word to its mailing list, gets in touch with Haitian businesses, and sets up events. “We place the product in their [stores], we advertise in their newspapers,” Demesmin says. To maximize UHA’s reach, “we always try to work with another group. We try to support each other,” she says.
Other Haitian artists are giving back as well. This November, Demesmin will return to Boston for a tribute to her organized by Lucien. The event will reunite Demesmin with Martineau, who now lives in Montreal. The concert will be another stop on Demesmin’s ongoing journey to bring new colors to her Haitian heritage and connect that culture with others. Though she travels throughout Haiti and the United States, she believes that “music has no frontier. That’s the most beautiful part of music: that you share your world with another world.”
Danielle Dreilinger is a writer and editor in Berklee’s Communications Office