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World Music Features

Online Exclusive: Manze Dayila

By Lissette Corsa
Published September 18, 2008

Baptized as the Empress of Haitian roots music, Manze Dayila defies convention with a striking combination of performance-art that draws crowds to the New York City subway system. Photo Credit: Jamie Propp

Every November 1st for the last several years Haitian immigrant Dayila dresses up in a black suit, dons dark sunglasses, and paints her face half white-half black with crosses on each cheek. Performing Haitian dances and traditional songs in Kreyól in the New York City subway, she pays tribute to Gede, the impish god of the underworld whose affinity with children and the dead demonstrates the contrasting capriciousness often displayed by Haitian vodou’s complex pantheon of spirits (lwa).


At first unsure of how people, particularly fellow Haitians, would react to seeing a woman embodying Gede, Dayila ultimately chose to defy convention with a striking combination of performance-art devotion that drew the subterranean crowds. It wasn’t the first or last time she broke with convention, but certainly one of the most striking examples of this indomitable woman’s personality.


“I am the first Haitian woman who decided to go out there and expose the culture, singing in my language, without thinking about how people were going to react,” she says of her subway station forays. “When I started singing, people would thank me for having the courage to stand up and for lifting their spirit, for sharing my dances with them. I’m the type of artist that, if I’m performing, I want the audience to be a part of my performance.”


As luck would have it, or maybe by the grace of Gede, the city’s labyrinthine underbelly served as a gateway for the aspiring singer. Dayila eventually landed a record deal thanks to the exposure she received from the Metropolitan Transit Authority just recently she dropped her debut Solé. The culmination of years of soul-searching followed by years of getting to the heart of the album, Solé’s overlapping currents reflect the unlikely, if increasingly common marriage, between sacred and secular music. Dayila pays homage to her ancestors and the vodou deities that guide her. At the same time, in a nod to the city that’s taken her in, she embraces the world village eclecticism filtered through the prism of contemporary life in the Big Apple.


For years Dayila juggled odd jobs to make ends meet. She hadn’t really realized she could sing until she became involved in NYC’s Haitian arts community. Then, at the urging of friends, she began to foster her natural abilities, eventually becoming a mainstay in Haitian roots music circles, gaining a reputation as the go-to singer with the kind of soul-stirring, visceral voice favored by dancers of traditional trance-driven rhythms. She’s now been baptized as the Empress of Haitian roots music.