This song considers death as liberating. Death as an escape is a notion which was compelling to people of African descent who were enslaved in the Americas. For the past 500 years, life has been harsh for the vast majority of people of African descent living in Haiti. The worst period was the era of slavery when life expectancy on the island was about 15 years and the vast majority of Africans who landed in Haiti, then Saint Domingue, died without ever reproducing themselves.
As the enslaved population was worked to death and constantly dying, the work force was almost never born in Haiti. They were predominately new arrivals. The song captures this by saying “mwen pa moun isit”, meaning “I am not from here”. This is poignantly true as the workers were largely from Africa. The term “mwen pa moun isit” also has dual meaning. It also means that “I am not regarded as a person here” and that too was true as Africans living in the Americas were once deprived of all their rights as humans.
France brought nearly 1 million people to the territory over a period of 100 years, yet by the time of the revolution, there were only about 450,000 people of African descent in the territory, and nearly all were recent arrivals. Numerous insulting epithets were used to identify people of African descent including “Sovaj”, meaning unrefined, “Mulatto” meaning like a mule, and “Bosal”, meaning wild horse.
From this cesspool of insults, a non-flattering term emerged for people of European descent, "Blanmannan” . Although descriptive of people of European ancestry whose low economic status forced them to engage in manual labor, the term can be used broadly to mean colonists of lesser worth. By the time of the Haitian Revolution, nearly 25% of Africans in the territory worked on a plantation owned by people of both African and European descent.*
The song uses Balmannan as a substitute for Blanmannan to avoid using a racially divisive term that was not truly descriptive of all those who engaged in the commerce of people as slaves. Moreover, the term Blanmannan is readily understood and politically charged. It is never used in Vodou songs. This is because Haiti abolished slavery without ever expelling those who once engaged in the commerce of people as slaves. Instead, many of these human rights violators remained in the country and formed alliances with the slave trading powers. That secured for them access to international markets which translated into their controlling access to arms, wealth, and power in Haiti. For example, recently, ISPAN published pictures of a slave plantation once owned by the Haitian President, Jean Pierre Boyer.
The vast majority of Haitian people sought a peaceful existence after slavery. In their songs, they used coded language like Balmannan or Palmannan to avoid the wrath of current and past human rights abusers. This maneuver also helped Haitians avoid family feuds because oftentimes the human right violators were the fathers or relatives of those whom they abused.
As the majority of the people living in Haiti were from the Kongo region. The song uses the Kongolese notion of the circle of life to describe the singer as dying. That circle of life is commonly likened to the path taken by the sun as it rises and sets which is considered analogous to its undergoing birth and death. In Kikongo, the path taken by the sun is called Zila Moyo, meaning the Grand Road or Gran Chemen. As the path is obligatory, the colonist cannot force him or her to rise again as the singer’s time on earth has come to an end.
It is God who created this obligatory Grand Road and that is why the song sites God as a liberator. In Vodou, God is called Bondye, the Good God. Another title used for God is Granmèt, meaning Grandmaster. These two titles help to illustrate the Vodou belief that God is all good and all powerful. Like Blanmannan, the term Grandmaster is derived from the social hierarchy that was in place during the era of enslavement where the plantation master was the power holder. The title of God as Grandmaster shows that God is even more powerful than the plantation owner. God rules over an even larger territory, the universe. Interestingly, in European tradition, the same is done and God is referred to as Lord, a term derived from the landlords of the European feudal system.
Although God is all powerful, the song limits God’s intervention to the point of liberation from the Balmannan. Certainly, an all-powerful and all good God could have intervened much earlier and created a world without slavery. In Traditional African Religions, this inconsistency is explained with the notion that God is distant and allows human affairs to unfold without interfering one way or another. It is for this reason that in the song, God is on the sidelines and allows destiny to take its course.
The song is a hopeful one because it finds a way out of suffering. It is not a revolutionary song. It does not call for rebellion. It is possibly a realistic song. For decades, revolution was seemingly not possible in Haiti as the French armed forces kept a stranglehold over the African population. Revolution was so difficult that no other slave society besides Haiti in 1791 had ever had a successful revolution.
The song looks to the future, to the world hereafter for salvation. African-American Christians did the same and referred to death as stealing away to Jesus. Many people of African ancestry learned from European missionaries to equate God with Jesus. They would steal away to Jesus because their death was like a theft of property liberated from the Balmannan.
In Haiti, despite extensive advertisement for Jesus Christ as God, many Haitians remain convinced that God is entirely spirit without a human form. Thesong avoids giving God a human form and refers to God by the descriptive title of Bondye. Although European and African names for God are well known in Haiti, the song does not use any of them. Emmanuel, Jehovah, Jesus, Mawu Lisa, Nana Boukoulou, Olowon, Yaweh, and Zanbi Poungwe are not used. Instead, God is given a descriptive name to avoid ethnic favoritism.
The song uses a generic term for God and for colonists to rally everyone around the notion that slavery is morally wrong. From this perspective, it is the institution of slavery that the song criticizes along with morally debased individuals, Balmannan, who violated the rights of others.
*Because of a shortage of Europeans in Haiti, before the 1770’s, free people of various shades were considered blan, white. These privileged people, like their European counterparts, were considered to be distinct from the general population. Today in Haiti, the term Blan is used in a manner more in keeping with this history, it means an outsider regardless of skin color.