Though he’s lived part-time in Maine for three years now, Richard Morse’s band RAM has never actually played in Maine. That will change next week when the Haitian ensemble will perform at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront, set for Aug. 25-27.
The Port-au-Prince-based Morse and his wife, Lunise, a singer and dancer who also performs in RAM, decided in 2014 that they wanted to buy a house in the U.S. Morse, the son of a Haitian mother and American father, grew up in Connecticut so he wanted to be in New England. He thought Maine would be the nicest place to be.
“A friend of ours suggested Deer Isle-Stonington, so we decided to check it out,” said Morse, 60, who is the lead singer of the band and its bandleader. “We drove across the causeway and fell in love … everybody’s so nice, and it’s such a cool, artist colony kind of place. It’s definitely the opposite of Haiti, but it’s still an island. We’re island people.”
Morse moved to Haiti in 1985, after attending Princeton University and later playing in a new wave band in New Jersey in the early 1980s. Not long after that, he took over management of the Hotel Olofsson, a legendary Port-Au-Prince hotel made famous by novelist Graham Greene that, when Haiti was a tourist destination in the 1970s, played host to the likes of Jackie Onassis, Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger.
It was at the hotel that he began to assemble the group of local dancers and musicians that would become RAM — an acronym for Richard Auguste Morse.
RAM is a rasin band, a genre that emerged in Haiti in the 1980s after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, which combines traditional Haitian Vodou folk music (which was outlawed under the Duvaliers) with rock and roll. Elements of funk and blues are also woven in. Though the lyrics aren’t explicitly political, there is an element of social critique built into the words — something that’s gotten Morse and the band in trouble with the many corrupt regimes that have at various times controlled Haiti.
The band plays hours-long, often trance-like, sets at the Hotel Oloffson, with the goal of getting everyone in the room, regardless of age or background, to move their bodies. While their performances at the upcoming American Folk Festival won’t likely stretch for hours and hours, attendees at the festival will still get a taste of the particular brand of hypnotic, deeply rhythmic music RAM has been making for nearly three decades.
“Our main goal is to make people dance,” said Morse, who was ordained as a Vodou priest in 2001. “We want people to enjoy themselves … when I came to Haiti, I was looking for rhythms. And I found them.”
Morse comes from a long tradition of musicians, dancers and scholars. His maternal grandfather was a musician, and his mother, Emarante de Pradine, is a beloved and acclaimed Haitian singer and dancer. She married Latin American scholar Richard M. Morse, who taught at Columbia, Yale and Stanford universities. He passed away in 2001. De Pradine, now 99, still lives in Haiti, though she regularly comes up to Deer Isle with her son and daughter in law.
“She loves it here,” said Morse. “It reminds her of our time living in New England when I was growing up.”
During its 27-year existence, the band has been a lightning rod for controversy and danger in Haiti. Between 1991 and 1994, during the years of the regime of Raoul Cedras, the band faced death threats from the government for its perceived support of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In 1998, Morse and the band survived an assassination attempt by the then-mayor of Port-au-Prince, himself a supporter of Aristide. Morse has seen regimes come and go, crises come and go, lived through hurricanes and even the devastating 2010 earthquake, all events he detailed in an interview on a 2011 episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.”
Through it all, though, the Oloffson has stayed standing — and RAM has kept playing. The band still plays a Thursday night residency at the hotel, as well as a number of one-off shows throughout the year in the U.S.
RAM has changed shape a few times over the years, with the current lineup featuring Morse’s 26-year-old son, William, on guitar, alongside several drummers, keyboardists and horn players. The band has also performed a number of times with the popular Canadian-American indie rock band the Arcade Fire. Musicians from RAM were featured on the Arcade Fire’s 2013 album, “Reflektor.”
The essential sound of the band has remained the same, however, and they have remained highly popular in Haiti over the years — Morse, in particular, is among the most well-known figures in the country. So popular, in fact, that earlier this summer Morse was recognized in Ellsworth.
“There are Haitians here that work on the blueberry fields, and I was at Wal-Mart, and they came up to me,” he said. “They call me RAM. It was pretty incredible.”
RAM will perform at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26 at the Railroad Stage, and at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at the Dance Pavilion, as well as at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, also at the Dance Pavilion.