When it comes to legendary Haitian singers, very few singers are in the rank of Martha Jean-Claude. Born on March 21, 1919 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Martha’s golden voice was as memorable as her career, which Haitian musical historians say begun in the late 1930s and early 40s, with young Martha singing at musical spectacles at Haiti’s famed Rex Theatre and at other informal gatherings.
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Martha, who became known for her skills at creating original compositions, was an astute writer as well, penning a play entitled “Avrinette”in 1952 that Haitian President Paul Eugene Magloire found so disrespectful to his government that he had her imprisoned. Jean-Claude would later state that she gave birth to her child two days after her release. It became clear to her that Haiti would not be a safe place to remain, and she left it for Cuba, where her husband Victor Marabal (spelled Marabel in some sources).
She married the Cuban journalist though some scholars do not seem to agree on when. Some say, it was prior to her forced exile to Cuba in 1952, others say it was in 1947, prior to her exile (they reportedly had met in Venezuela). What she has said in interviews, however, was that when she went into exile, she was pregnant with her first child and refers to Marabal as her husband. So naturally, we’ll go with her version.
Her exile to Cuba would last for nearly three consecutive decades, as she did not return to Haiti until February 1986, when Jean-Claude Duvalier left Haiti for exile in France. That year, Jean-Claude had one of the most awaited concerts of her career, as she performed a comeback concerts in front of thousands in Port-au-Prince. She wouldn’t perform at a concert of this magnitude for another ten years, during which she accompanied Celia Cruz and Emerante de Pradines for a spectacular show. Over the years, she and Cruz had performed together and even recorded music together.
Jean-Claude actually traveled a great deal around the world, including Puerto Rico, Angola, Montreal, and Mexico where she spent a year performing in the late 1950s. Among the most famous songs in her repertoire was “Jack Solèy”, a tribute to Jacques Stephen Alexis, a writer who disappeared without a trace, and presumably was murdered in 1961. Others included “Tolalito”, a frolicking folk song that made the best of Jean-Claude’s throaty voice. In 1993, she lent her voice to the soundtrack of Raoul Peck’s film L’Homme Sur Les Quais. That year, she also released the LP Soy mujer de dos islas.
For her musical accomplishments that started with her recording of the album Canciones de Haiti, and for her work as fearless activist, Jean-Claude was presented with Haiti’s highest honor by Haiti’s then-president Rene Preval in the 1990s.
Stricken with diabetes, her performances became rare, although at one point in the early 1990s, she performed with her kids Richard and Sandra, who had followed her musical footsteps to form the roots band Mackandal (named after a legendary slave). Among with Lumane Casimir, Claudette of the duo Claudette et Ti Pierre, Jean-Claude became a musical model for many Haitian female singers and at least one singer, Carole Demesmin, a legend in her own right, has cited Martha as a great influence on her musical career.
Jean-Claude died on November 14, 2001 in Cuba, at the age of 82, leaving behind her four children Magdaluna, Richard, Sandra, and Linda. Her legacy included a rich collection of much-appreciated music, which included a treasury of children’s songs Martha canta a los niños, a film (Simparele, filmed in 1974), and a bio-doc produced by her son Richard aptly titled Fanm Dezil. The Martha Jean-Claude Foundation, created in her honor while she was still alive, has the mission of spreading Haitian culture, and keeping Martha’s discography on the radar of new generations.