The singer invokes island spirits in a wild ride through her nation’s history

David Hongimann

Orphaned at birth, Moonlight Benjamin was christened by the priest who took her in and raised her as his own in western Haiti. As a protégée of the singer and soundtrack composer Tines Salvant, she became a fixture of Port-au-Prince’s recording industry, moving to France in 2002. For Siltane she has reinvented 1970s blues-rock as a distinctively Haitian sound, with vodou-inspired rhythms and invocations to the loas.

The album takes a wild ride through Haitian history and literature, voices commenting on and arguing with each other — a pattern set out explicitly on “Moso Moso”, its thrashing riffs masking a deep ambivalence about the island.The first half of the album is riff heavy, from the shiny top line and chunky groove of “Memwa’n” to the high electric guitar ringing out like a bell on “Papa Legba”, celebrating the Loa in charge of transitions and trickery. “Ouvè pot la pou mwen,” she repeats. Open the door for me.The middle point of the album, “Simbi”, is a brief snippet of pure invocation, a chant over dry rattling percussion as guitars and drums fall briefly silent, addressed to the spirit of the waters and as a broad homage to all the loas. Benjamin comes out of this into the slow burn of “Chan Dayiva”, its lyrics a poem by Jean-Pierre Richard Narcisse about the legacy of slavery and the journey from west Africa.

There are more traditional Caribbean guitar patterns on “Port-au-Prince”, a peripatetic dérive from Delmas to Pétion-Ville that becomes a lament for the state of the Haitian capital. The next song, “Doux Pays” is more optimistic. “It is a sweet country”, sings Benjamin. “You cannot be more authentic than the people there.” But the unspoken subtext is that the words were written by Anthony Lespès before the rise of the Duvaliers, who imprisoned Lespès and saw him die shortly after his release.

The energy picks up for “Tan Malouk”, a surrealist paean to the possibilities of difficult times. “Des Murs”, depicts an island inexorably being built over and walled up. But the album closes with another hymnal invocation, this time to Agwé, the spirit of the sea.