Moonlight Benjamin is a Haitian-born singer/songwriter/bandleader living in France since 2002. Her music is unique on the Haitian diaspora scene. She fuses the gut-level passion of Haitian roots music with the blare and bravado on of electric guitar rock, always with bracing effect. Afropop first met her at WOMEX in 2018 and featured her on our program From Haiti to the World. We met again at globalFEST in New York in January, 2023, as she was about to release her second album, Wayo.
I was already grooving to the album’s catchy advance single “Haut là Haut,” and Moonlight’s globalFEST set at David Geffen Hall delivered her signature force and bravado. Before the show, I had a chance to speak with her. Moonlight Benjamin is something of a paradox. In person, she is elegant, soft-spoken and articulate in perfect French. On stage, she is like a person possessed, raw and emotive singing mostly in Creole with a burly voice that erupts from somewhere deep within, and backed by a band that rocks hard throughout. Here’s our conversation.
Banning Eyre: Moonlight Benjamin. Great to see you again. Is this your first time in New York?
Moonlight Benjamin: No. In 2018 I was at Lincoln Center.
2018. That seems like another age given what’s happened in between then and now. What have you been up to during those years?
Listen, this difficult time gave me a chance to make an interior voyage. Despite everything, this complicated period allowed me to to get some distance and to look at the world and at all the things that were happening in front of me, to do some reflecting and to see where I fit into all of this. So for me, it wasn't bad at all to be so calm. One might say that nothing happened, but no. That's not true. Something did happen, and it was something strong, a chance to look back, to consider life and to go through this period with grace, and love.
A time to reflect.
That's right. On oneself and on everything that's happening today.
Was this the time when you created the songs for this new album?
Yes. It was during this time that I wrote the songs on Wayo. There were 10 new songs that came out of this time.
Is there an overriding theme that you were exploring in these 10 songs?
As I said, this was complicated for me. I faced myself, who I am. What am I doing? What do I hold on to? What sounds must I keep in order to continue evolving and what things must I put aside. Also, I thought about the importance of dreams, how to embrace our dreams in order to rise despite all the difficulties, and how all of this connects with oneself, with the universe, with everything we encounter.
Let’s talk about some of the songs, starting with the first single you released “Haut là Haut.”
“Haut là Haut” talks about our dreams and how we must lift them up. Because there are no small dreams. All the dreams are big. As long as they come from the heart, despite all the difficulties we must always lift our dreams up high.
What about the title of the album?
Wayo is really a demand for purification, a demand to the universe, to the angels, to God. I'm asking for purification, to purify this moment, to help to disconnect me from all bad thoughts and all the habits of the subconscious that can erode me, to rid myself of all that, and to see the way forward.
Is that a Creole word?
Yes. Wayo is a cry of pain.
Talk to me about some of the other songs on the album.
It's a very philosophical album. In life, you cannot find equilibrium outside of yourself if that equilibrium does not exist inside of you. It will never work. You must have equilibrium inside your person, and then you can find it everywhere.
As we speak today, I have only heard one song from the album, so please introduce some of the others.
Take “Lilé.” It's important to be yourself, but you need others in order to advance. You need others to grow, but first, you have to be yourself.
Then “Ouvrè Lespri.” You have to be open to changes. That's what this song is about, the fear of change and the fear of the unknown. When change comes, you have to embrace it even if you don't want to. Change is important in life. It's thanks to changes that we can realize our dreams. You have to embrace change so that you can become someone else, to become who you are meant to be. Sometimes we are too attached to our habits and we don't embrace change because we are afraid of the new. Open your spirit. Open yourself to change, because it's through changes that you can achieve your goals.
That's a great message. What would you say about the style of music you play? You spoke to me the first time we met about your love of blues and rock. Where does that come from?
I'm very attached to the late 1900s. I can't really explain why. Maybe that's because I came of age then. But it's true that I am especially attached to those genres.
Were there particular artists who reinforced that attraction?
I don't think so. It was just a taste that I personally developed for this period. I just love those styles.
Have you ever been to New Orleans?
I played there in 2018 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but I didn't really have time to visit. I really would like to spend time in New Orleans.
I guess you know that there are a lot of Haitians there.
It's very interesting the way the city’s Haitian community has developed in recent years. I think you would fit right in. You must do it.
I believe that.
These recent years have been especially difficult for Haiti. You live in France, and I don't know if you've had a chance to return there, but I'm sure you have family and friends in Haiti. How have these events touched you?
I think that the people of Haiti, if you look at their history, with all they have endured, all the difficulties, have touched the world. Haitians today continue their lives through this incredibly hard time, but they endure. That's what is most poignant for me. I was last there in 2016, and I saw a country that was falling apart. It was not pleasant.
And now it's even worse.
Worse and worse.
But France has been your home for two decades now. Do you live in Paris?
No. I live in the south of France, in Toulouse
What's the reception for Haitian music like in Toulouse? Is there a community?
No. Not really. The Haitian community is pretty weak and in Toulouse there aren't many of us at all. There is a bigger community in Paris. But it's not like in New York where there's a real brewing of culture with music and cultural events. That gives them a sense of place. It's not like that in France. There is a nice Haitian community in Paris, but there's not that brewing of culture and music that you find in New York or in Canada.
Yes there’s a lot of Haitian culture in Montreal. Have you been there?
I'm going soon.
I actually grew up there and I've visited the Nuits d’Afrique festival a few times. There's always a strong Haitian representation at that festival. The Haitian artist Wesli lives in Montreal. Do you know him?
I've heard of him.
When I came to France in 2002 I attended a music school in Toulouse. I went there directly to study music. That education really helped me to open up to other cultures. I saw the importance of fusion, with rock for example. I gained the facility to create a fused genre of music, and that gave me the sound I have today.
Tell me a little about your beginnings in Haiti. Did you see yourself having a career in music when you were there?
When I came to France I was already 31 years old. I had sung a lot in Haiti by then. I started in church and I worked as a chorus singer with a number of artists. I wanted to have a solo career, but it was very complicated there. That's when I decided I needed to leave and accept a big change in order to evolve. That's why I went to France.
After you sang in church when you were working with Haitian artists, are there some I might know?
Well, I worked with the ex-president [Michel Martelly] on an album. And I worked with an artist called Jacques Souverain.
Our introduction to Haitian music came through Boukman Eksperyans and Boukan Ginen, with Eddie François.
Eddie François. I know him very well.
Haitian music has had an interesting history in the international scene. You have compas acts like Tabou Combo, and racine groups like Boukman, RAM and Lakou Mizik have toured a lot. I'm interested in what you are doing because it doesn't follow any of the existing trends. You've given Haitian music a whole new dimension. What you do reminds me a little bit of another Caribbean artist who has made his home in France: Delgres.
Yes, Delgres does blues. I don't know him well. But I know of him.
Now that you're able to start touring again, where do you want to go? Where do you find the best reception for what you're doing?
Germany. England. Holland. They’re all magnificent. Also New York. And New Orleans. Yes!.
Next time you get there, I hope you plan to spend a few weeks. I myself have never spent enough time there. I know musicians from New York who moved there and they never want to come back. It's not the easiest place to live, but the musical life is unsurpassed.
It's complicated. The life of music is always complicated. Everywhere. I've been lucky in France. I've been able to live with my music. There are support systems in place for artists. If you can do enough concerts, you can live through music.
Tonight, you'll be performing with a number of fantastic artists. GlobalFEST is always a great January reunion for artists and people who love music. What are you hoping for tonight?
I want to bring people together. It's love that makes an artist, a promoter, an editor. It's a love of this life. We have nothing without love. It's thanks to love that we are here. To do this work to live out one’s dreams, to meet people—it's all thanks to love.
Finally, tell me a little about your band. Are they all based in Toulouse like you?
No. I live in Toulouse, but the band lives in Paris and Bordeaux.
How did you find the right musicians for this band?
The world is small. We're connected without being connected. When I looked for people to start this project I found some quite easily, and others came to me. We've now been together for more than five years, and we're trying to cultivate this positive energy and to share it more and more with the public.
So this is the same group I saw at WOMEX in 2018.
Well, I look forward to the show, and to the album. Thanks very much for talking with me.
Thank you very much. See you soon.