At Westbeth, he’s known as Jacaman. But back in Port-au-Prince, he says, everybody calls him Dada, his nickname since birth. As a businessman in Haiti, Dada opened a mini-market and a housewares store. As an impresario and record producer, Dada managed the band Les Shleu-Shleu and a number of its offshoots. In 1980, Jacaman came to the U.S. with his wife and three children. Not long after his arrival in New York City, he took up his post at Westbeth’s security desk, where he has been employed ever since, except for a brief retirement in 2009.
Terry Stoller spoke with Hugues (Dada) Jacaman in March 2016 about his grandparents’ journey from the Middle East to Haiti; his early days as a store owner; his discovery of the band that became Shleu-Shleu and its subsequent success; his coming to New York and finding the job at Westbeth; and his continuing work as a band manager.
Terry Stoller: I’ve read that your family is from Syria. Is that correct?
Hugues (Dada) Jacaman: No. My grandfather and grandmother are from Bethlehem, not Syria. The problem is that in Haiti, people don’t know who is Palestinian and who is from Syria. They call everybody Syrian. My father was born in Honduras.
How did your family wind up in Haiti?
My grandfather left Palestine to go to Brazil. The boat stopped in Honduras, and he and my grandmother stayed there. One of his brothers went to Colombia. My grandmother’s father and three of her siblings went to Haiti. After the revolution in Honduras in 1924, my grandmother didn’t want to stay there. They went to join her family in Haiti in a town called Saint-Marc. My father was 12 years old at this time. My mother was born in Haiti.
And what did your family do in Haiti?
Our family always had a business. My father had a store in Saint-Marc called Chez Jack de Saint-Marc. He sold food, shoes. He sold everything. My father’s store had a fire. Everything burnt. He moved to Port-au-Prince. I was already there. After a certain grade, you had to go to Port-au-Prince to do the rest of your schooling. I was in Catholic school in Port-au-Prince and was in a dorm there. When the fire happened, and he moved to Port-au-Prince, he opened a store that sold all kinds of shoes. After I got my diploma, at first I worked with my father in his store. My cousin had a supermarket, and that’s why I opened Dada’s mini-market. There were schools not too far from me. I sold everything. After that, things were not so good, and I closed it. My cousin and I opened another store, called Comptoir Menager, where we sold wedding gifts and housewares.
How did you discover the group of young men who became Shleu-Shleu?
I heard these teenagers playing music in a yard behind a house. I love music. One day, I came to the house, and the father of one of the musicians got mad: “You guys don’t ever play nowhere. You always make loud music. And the neighbors are complaining.” But this father was close to my father. I said to his wife, “I’m going to take that band and get them to play at nightclubs.” Those guys had never played for money—they played for drink, women, and fun. The money wasn’t important to them.
How many people were in the band then?
At first there were eight, and then nine. Jacques Vabre and Smith Jean-Baptiste were in the group. Tony Moise was not yet in the band. After we started to play, we said we needed a saxophonist, and we found Tony.
Can you talk more about becoming their manager?
When I spoke to the mother, she said, “OK, you I know. You can do something.” My cousin had gone to school with a lady named Ginette Wiener, whose family owned the Hotel Villa Créole. She was the manager, and she wanted our band to audition. The band who was playing for her was called Ibo Lele. Ibo Lele is a hotel that had a barbecue every Friday. And Villa Créole had a barbecue every Thursday. The owner of Ibo Lele said, “No, you cannot have the Ibo Lele band play at Villa Créole.” I told Ginette, “I’ve got this small band. I can give you an audition.” Ginette said, “Yes, Thursday—not this Thursday, but Thursday next week.” At this time, Jacques Vabre, who played guitar, left the band. That’s when we found Tony. We rehearsed every day. Morning and night. We played at Villa Créole; people liked it. And I’m telling you the truth: I didn’t think the band was going to do what they did. The band took off; it got away, and it went.
So you had connections?
Connections from my father. My father was well known. He dealt with everybody, poor, rich. Everybody was the same for him.
You told me that Shleu-Shleu’s music was different from the music of Nemours Jean-Baptiste. Who was he?
He was the maestro of a big band. The band I loved so much. I still love it. He had three saxophones, three trumpets. But we had two guitars, one bass, tom-tom, timbale, tambour, one saxophonist, and two singers. We were the first mini-jazz band.
Was your band’s music kompa?
Quatre-trois. That is the music we made. That’s the beat. It’s dance music.
Who was the audience you were looking for?
The audiences were looking for us. People came to the nightclub. After that, for vacation, people hired us to play for house parties. Everybody loved the band.
How did you have the wherewithal to get this together?
I was also an actor. I was in The Life of Jesus Christ. I played Judas.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I wanted to do everything. I know a lot of people. They called me. I didn’t do it for money. I enjoyed myself. This was at the Rex Theatre. I was in two or three plays there.
How did the band’s tour to New York come about?
First we went to a big hotel in Santo Domingo. That was a fund-raiser for the fire department to open a small station on a street called John F. Kennedy Avenue. Then we made the first mini-jazz record called Haiti, Mon Pays. I produced it. It sold in New York. All the Haitians liked it. There was a guy called Mike Rodriguez from Casa Borinquen, a club in Brooklyn. He asked us to come to New York. Most of the band stayed in New York.
I went back to Haiti with three members of the group, and we started a new Shleu-Shleu band. That band toured to Paris, Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Curaçao. And we made a lot of records. The members of that band left and went to New York and formed Skah Shah. At that point, I formed another band and went to New York. Again, most of the band stayed there, and I went back to Haiti with a few people, and I formed another Shleu-Shleu. I opened a nightclub called Babaco, and my wife had a restaurant called Le Chaudron.
You left Haiti in 1980. Did you continue with your group when you came to New York?
Why did you come to New York?
How did you find Westbeth?
I came here with my wife and three children, 5, 6, and 3. My wife stayed with my sister-in-law in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, and I stayed in Jamaica Estates with my wife’s older sister. And one day I met a Haitian guy who was working security at Kennedy Airport, and I said, “Can I have a job on security?” I was a friend of his father in Haiti. He said, “No, you’re a rich man. You don’t want that job.” I said, “Between four and twelve, I have nothing to do. I don’t care. It will be money coming in. I’ve got to buy coats and shoes for the kids.” He called the big boss of the security company, so I worked there for a few months. We were making $3.50 an hour. One day, the supervisor quit. Another guy told me that the supervisor got a job at a place where there was a union and that paid security $6.46 an hour. I called him. I said, “You’re supervisor for a job that pays $6.46 an hour. I want that job.” He said, “Don’t worry. You’re in my mind. When I’ve got a job, I’ll call you.” Two months later, he called me: “I need you tomorrow at nine in the morning in my office on Parsons Boulevard.” Eight thirty, I’m in the lobby waiting for him. He took me to the big boss: “That’s the guy I’m talking about.” The boss said, “Take his picture in uniform. Monday you start at Westbeth.”
How did you feel as a man in the arts coming to work as a guard where artists live?
That’s why the boss sent me here. When I came here, I saw the D Train practice downstairs. After that, I met Freddie Waits, the father of Nasheet. I didn’t speak English, but I was lucky. Everybody working here spoke Spanish.
You speak Spanish? What did you speak at home?
French and Creole. And I speak Spanish. Haitians speak Spanish. We’re near to Santo Domingo. I’m a smart guy. If you say something in English to me, I take two words, and I know what you tell me. Lee Frazier, who lives here, every afternoon in the summer, she would sit in the courtyard taking in fresh air. When I would say something in my English, it would not be right. She would say, “Don’t worry. English is not your language. People will understand you.” People who speak Creole patois speak English better than me. The patois is direct like English.
How has the job changed over the years you’ve been here?
I was working security here for NASCO. At one point, Westbeth took over. They had a meeting with us: Who wanted to stay with Westbeth, and who wanted to go with NASCO? Almost everybody stayed in Westbeth.
How has the place changed?
We don’t have what we had before. Before, we had prostitution in the neighborhood, drugs, car break-ins, everything. We’re lucky we never had a problem in this building. You have to know how to talk to those people. If you come in by force, they go to force with you. If you say nicely, “Please you cannot stay here. You have to leave,” it’s OK. We were at the glass doors in the courtyard, and at eleven o’clock, we had to lock the 55 Bethune Street door.
What do you like about working here?
I like people. Especially old people.
And you’ve said people come down to talk to you.
Yes. If you have a problem, you come and you curse at me, I don’t even listen. That’s why people like me. If you go to vacation, you come to me, “I’m going to vacation. Don’t let anybody know I’m not here.” They don’t say that to anybody else. One day, I was on vacation. Another guy was working the desk. A lady came down and said, “Where’s Jacaman?” The guy said, “He got fired.” He made a joke. The woman went to the office and asked, “Why did you fire Jacaman?” They said, “We didn’t fire him. He’s on vacation.” They said to me, “Why do all the women like you?” I said, “I’m nice.” I always make a joke, teasing you. But you have to know who you can tease. You’ve got people here you cannot call by their first name. You call them Mrs. So-and-So. That’s why those people like me. I’m in business. I know how to deal with people.
Didn’t you retire from your Westbeth job? What year was that?
When did you come back?
I retired in June. After June, July, and August, I came back in September.
Why did you come back?
I love Westbeth. When I first came back, I worked two days a week. In 2010, I got cancer. I stayed home from January to September. Then I came back to Westbeth. When I first retired, the union had said, You’re retired—you cannot work more than so-and-so hours. But when I became 71 and a half, I went to the union, and they said, “You can work whatever you want now.” They said, “You don’t work five days?” I said, “No, Wednesday is my doctor day. So I work four days a week.”
In 1996, Shleu-Shleu performed at a club in Haiti. There’s a clip of the song “Moun Damou” on YouTube, and you’re in it.
Serge Rosenthal, the guitarist in two of my groups, wanted to make some money, so he put two of the groups together, the Original Shleu-Shleu and Skah Shah, to play in Haiti. But my fans in Haiti asked for me. That’s why he called me.
Was that the first time you’d been back to Haiti since 1980?
Yes. Everybody said, Dada, Dada. People know me.
Do you miss the band?
We have a band in Miami, Shleu-Shleu Miami All Stars.
Are these the same guys from your first band?
One of them. Smith Jean-Baptiste, the drummer. We started the band together. I always call him on the phone. When he’s got a big event, he calls me, and I take a plane to Florida. Now he wants Shleu-Shleu to go to French Guiana. I’m waiting for the contract.
To hear “Moun Damou” played at the 1996 Shleu-Shleu reunion and to see Dada Jacaman at the event, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG1eHwbp9ec.
Note: Dada Jacaman says the name Shleu-Shleu will be explained when Shleu-Shleu no longer exists.
All photos courtesy of Hugues Jacaman.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Behind the Scenes, Copyright 2016 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council