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#929: U.S. pop culture drives into Haiti (fwd)
FEATURE-U.S. pop culture drives into Haiti
10:03 p.m. Nov 10, 1999 Eastern By Jennifer Bauduy
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Nov. 11 (Reuters) - A lively mural of U.S.
basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman painted on the back of a colourful
truck weaves in and out of Port-au-Prince's midday traffic, stopping
occasionally to load and unload passengers. Suddenly, Michael Jordan
pushes past, only to be cut off by a seductive portrait of pop star
Janet Jackson. The gaily painted trucks known as tap-taps, which whisk
through the streets of Haiti's capital crammed with people and
blasting out music, have long been a symbol of the teeming Caribbean
nation as well as its public transportation system. They used to be
covered with typically Haitian images -- landscapes, voodoo designs,
pictures of Catholic saints or slogans such as ``Money Can't Buy
Happiness'' and ``You talk,I work.'' But foreign culture has pushed
aside the traditional artwork lately in favour of such modern icons as
pop-culture heroes, sports stars and the flags of the United States and
Canada, two countries now home to hundreds of thousands of Haitian
``When I grew up, voodoo images like Erzuli or St. Jacques were really
popular. We painted them all the time, but after a while it got old,''
said Wilfred Azemar, 29, one of Haiti's best-known tap-tap artists.
``Now, people want superstars like Romario,'' he said, referring to the
Brazilian soccer player.
'CRAZY' OVER MICHAEL JORDAN
He said he had painted U.S. basketball star Michael Jordan and everyone
went crazy over it.'' Traditional spiritual images still appear on
tap-taps but now they are pushed to the side or painted below the larger
mural. Named for the taps passengers use to signal drivers when they
want a stop, Haiti's communal taxis are considered far more than a
12-cents-a-ride way to get from point A to point B. ``If it doesn't
have good music playing I won't get on,'' said Jean-Claude Victor, 35,
an unemployed ironworker who stood in central Port-au-Prince recently
waiting to catch a tap-tap. Victor said he likes to travel on tap-taps
playing the music of his favourite artists such as the late Jamaican
reggae giant Bob Marley and Alpha Blondy from the Ivory Coast.
``If there's no music there's no 'feeling,''' said 20-year-old
Chuppette, who preferred to give only her first name. ``Only old
people get on without music.'' Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo figures on
several tap-taps; French player Zinedine Zidane and Argentine player
Gabriel Omar Batistuta can also been seen cruising through
Port-au-Prince. Azemar said he has painted four Rodman murals and the
former U.S. National Basketball Association champions remain
intensely popular with Haitians. ``In Haiti, especially Port-au-Prince,
the Chicago Bulls are like the Brazilian soccer team for us. Haitians
love Jordan, Rodman -- it's their team,'' he said.
'RODMAN, PEOPLE SEE HIM AS A FANTASY'
``Rodman, people see him as a fantasy -- someone who's living life,''
Azemar added. Even with the new symbols, the tap-tap business has been
hit as hard as the rest of Haiti by the nation's continuing economic
woes. Per capita income is just $260 per year, making it the
hemisphere's poorest nation, and inflation is rampant. ``Fewer people
are making orders now because things are so expensive,'' said veteran
tap-tap artist Okel Ultimo, 52, as he carved a wooden decoration in his
Port-au-Prince workshop. The average 30-passenger tap-tap, depending on
how elaborate its design, costs $3,000 to $4,000, a process that takes
one or two months. Tap-taps have evolved into the elaborate rolling
works of art of today from simple painted pickup trucks used in
the 1960s, said tap-tap artist Jean-Jacques Wilfred Joseph. ``In the
beginning they were more simple. Just a strip of colour here and
there,'' he said, adding that he was not surprised that U.S. symbols
have become so popular today. ``People like the American flags. It's
just for the colours -- red, white, blue, they really hit you --
painters really like vibrant colours. They like the Nike symbol a lot,
anything that has an American symbol is always trendy.''