"Haiti’s Centennial and the Dessalinienne" by Rebecca Dirksen, Ph.D.

Dirksen is an ethnomusicologist and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research is on power and politics in Haitian music.

Each year on January 1st, Haitians celebrate their nation’s Independence Day. This holiday commemorates the twelve-year revolution against slavery and the colonial powers that ultimately led to the modern world’s first free black republic. On 1 January 1904, the centennial celebration of Haiti’s independence was observed under President Nord Alexis. A National Association for the Centennial was established to direct the festivities.

As one of its primary activities, the Centennial Association organized a competition for the composition of a national anthem. The competition consisted of two parts. First, in June 1903, poets submitted manuscripts of potential lyrics for the new anthem. A five-member jury selected a text by Justin Lhérisson for the simplicity of its message and patriotic sentiment. Notably, the jury included lawyer and journalist Sténio Vincent, who would become president in 1930. Once the lyrics were chosen, the Centennial Association invited composers to submit musical settings of Lhérisson’s lyrics. A separate jury, which included the Director of the National Palace Band Occide Jeanty, deemed the musical score by Nicolas Geffrard the most moving entry. Shortly after the competition, historian Dr. Clément Lanier suggested "La Dessalinienne" as the anthem’s title to venerate General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the principle founders of Haiti.

There are differing accounts of the Dessalinienne’s premiere, which took place in October 1903. The first performance may have been in St. Marc at an unveiling of a sculpture of Dessalines. Alternatively, the renowned vocalist Auguste ("Kandjo") de Pradines may have first sung the piece to mark the arrival of the national army into Port-au-Prince in conjunction with the Centennial events. On January 1, 1904, the anthem was officially introduced to the broader public, as crowds numbering in the thousands were guided through singing the words and melody during the Independence Day celebration. On that day, the Dessalinienne accompanied the renaming of an important public square to the Place des Héroes de l’Indépendance (Square of the Heroes of the Independence) and the inauguration of monuments that would soon be built to honor the nation’s revolutionary figures: Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Pétion, and the Nèg Mawon.

The Dessalinienne was immediately seen as a powerful symbol of liberty, but it was not legally declared the official anthem until the national assembly passed a law stating as much in August 1919. An additional historical moment involving this piece of music occurred when the Haitian national army band played "La Dessalinienne" on the final day of the U.S. Occupation (1915-1934) in recognition of Haiti’s re-established sovereignty. Significantly, the national anthem was not translated from French into Haitian Kreyòl, the language of the majority of the population, until the popular vocalist Ansy Dérose began performing a Kreyòl version in 1986.

The five verses of "La Dessalinienne" remind Haitians to remember the forefathers, honor the homeland, and walk together as a unified people. The crisp dotted rhythms, brisk tempo, and melody solidly built around arpeggiated chords together contribute to a march that is both militaristic and resolute in character. Today, Haitian schoolchildren typically sing the Dessalinienne in class each morning, one verse on each day of the week.

The original manuscript is held at the national museum MUPANAH on the Champs de Mars in downtown Port-au-Prince.