Choucoune

Martha Jean-Claude,
a Haitian exile in Cuba.

This sweet little Haitian song began life as a poem written by Oswald Durand in 1883. It is said that Durand wrote the poem while jailed for criticizing political leaders in Cap-Haitien. Inspired by a lovely bird that lit on his cell window he was reminded of a girl, one Marie Noel Belizaire, whom he had met and admired. He wrote this poem extolling her dark beauty. Well, that's the story they tell. I like it, so I'm sticking to it.

Durand's poem was set to music by Michel Mauleart Monton, a Haitian-American composer. It drifted back to Haiti where it became absorbed into the folk tradition. It took until 1949 before Choucoune was recorded by Emy de Pradines in Haiti. In the 1950's Choucoune was recorded by Haitian artists such as Issa el Saieh (the famous Palestinian-Haitian band leader. Yes, really!) and by Martha Jean-Claude the Haitian actress. In 1952 Celia Cruz recorded a lively Cuban version of Choucone with Martha Jean-Claude and La Sonora Matancera that combined creole and Spanish language verses.

You may recognize the tune as 'Yellow Bird', a calypso style song with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. First recorded by The Norman Luboff Choir on 'Calypso Holiday', 'Yellow Bird' became extremely popular and was performed by Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, The Tarriers, the Mills Brothers and others - even Lawrence Welk.

The original 'Durand/Monton' version sprouted many variations. I sing one of the shorter versions that I learned from the singing of Lolita Cuevas on the Folkways record 'Haitian Folk Songs.' Lolita is accompanied by Frantz Casseus a wonderful guitarist and composer from Haiti. I speak no Haitian Creole and hardly any French so my accent is probably barbarous. I can only apologize to my Haitian and French speaking listeners and ask them not to cringe too much.

Lyrics: 

Dèyè yon gwo touf pengwen
Lot jou mwen kontré Choukoun
Li souri lè li wè mwen
Mwen di : « Syèl a la bèl moun »
Li souri lè li ouè moin
Mwen di : « Syèl a la bèl moun »

(repeat)

Ti zwazo nan bwa ki t’ apé kouté
Ti zwazo nan bwa ki t’ apé kouté

Pito bliyé sa
Sé two gran lapen
Ka dépi jou-sa
De pyé mwen nan chen

Pito bliyé sa
Sé two gran lapen
De pyé mwen nan chen
(repeat from Pito)

Choukoun sé yon marabou
Jé li klére kon chandèl
Choucounne genyen tété debou
A si choukoun té fidèl
A si choukoun té fidèl
Nou rété kozé lontan
(Repeat)

(Repeat chorus: Ti zwazo . . .)

-------------
(English translation from liner notes of Lolita Cuevas' Folkways album 'Haitian Folksongs')

Behind a great hedge
The other day I met Choucounne
She smiled when she saw me
I said, “Heavens what a lovely creature!”

The little birds in the forest were singing.
Better to forget it, it’s too much pain.
For since that day my two feet have been in chains.

Choucounne is a marabout. (A dark beauty)
Her eyes as bright as candles.
Choucounne has beautiful breasts.
Ah, if she were only faithful!
I would stay a long time to speak to her.

Instruments: