Jane Birkin in Haiti

Jane Birkin in Haiti

Her songs touched our hearts

On 12 January 2010 a massive earthquake hit Haiti and shook the entire world. A few weeks later, a small group of Volunteer Corps members from ATD Fourth World’s international centre in France, left for Port-au-Prince to support the ATD team in Haiti. Jane Birkin (1946-2023), a British and French singer and actress, also wanted to show her solidarity with the Haitian people. Thanks to the director Caroline Glorion, she learned about ATD Fourth World and in April, joined the team in Haiti. Accompanied by ATD members, Birkin met families affected by the disaster in some of the most isolated areas.

A connection

Caroline Glorion, an ally of ATD Fourth World since 1980, as well as a journalist and director, was a close friend of Jane Birkin’s. She had written and directed, alongside Delphine Bolleret, the documentary Jane Birkin, Arabesque Voyage in 2003. When the singer shared her desire to support the people of Haiti after the earthquake, Caroline Glorion put her in contact with ATD Fourth World, which has been active in Haiti since 1981.

Arriving at Port-au-Prince

While the immediate international reaction to the earthquake was to send donations and humanitarian aid, Jane Birkin landed in Port-au-Prince on 4 April, travelling light with her music and compassion. She knew that music could provide the strength people needed to face the difficult situations they encountered, and the hope she brought turned out to be just as essential as the emergency aid.

“In April 2010, hardly three months had passed since the earthquake; the capital was still in shock; it was catastrophic. At the same time, there was a sense of solidarity, optimism, and a feeling that we would somehow get through this. We didn’t yet know how, but we knew we would get by together. The visit from Ms Birkin was a ray of hope, friendship, and fraternity.”

Jacqueline Plaisir, member of the Volunteer Corps and, at the time, part of the ATD Fourth World’s team in Haiti when the earthquake hit.

Jean-François Gay, Haitian singer and Fourth World activist was particularly impressed by the singer’s modesty upon her arrival:

“Even though everything was demolished, ruined in Haiti, Ms Birkin, a world-renowned artist, arrives in the middle of the destruction. There wasn’t even a hotel left standing, and she graciously accepted a modest accommodation. The manner in which she arrived at the Fourth World House and the way in which she worked with people that she did not know, left an impression on us. Not to mention that we had the opportunity to sing with her at the Lakou Don Bosco Centre.”

Kysly Joseph, a member of the Volunteer Corps, met the singer at the conference ‘Haiti, Demain’ organised on 9 April by ATD Fourth World at the headquarters of Radio France in Paris. For him as well, Jane Birkin’s visit to his country was a memorable event:

“The visit from Ms Birkin was part of a larger dynamic that enabled the voices of the people living in poverty to be heard during the reconstruction of Haiti. A personality such as hers, at that moment, generated something powerful.”

An influential presence–bolstering the country’s reconstruction alongside those living in poverty

Over five days, from 4 to 8 April, Ms Birkin followed the team in their daily work. Guided by the members of ATD Fourth World Haiti, she met some of the people most affected by the catastrophe. In a camp for displaced people, she sang with the children and shared a moment reading a book beside them (at the Street Library). She also made paper flowers in all different colours.

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Upon the hillsides of Martissant, a part of Port-au-Prince she greeted the inhabitants with waves, exchanged words of friendship, and strolled alongside the locals. She accompanied a young man, Jean David, now a member of the Volunteer Corps, all the way to the top of the Grand’Ravine to meet the most isolated and underprivileged residents. The visit was essential to verify that the food supplies had successfully reached the community and were being shared equitably.

  • “Ms Birkin followed the Volunteer Corps members every step of the way,” remembers Jacqueline Plaisir, “She saw how they stopped to chat with different people. She was also greeted as if she was already part of this great network of friendship.”

Birkin also visited a hospital with the team. Some patients had had limbs amputated or had other serious injuries. Jacqueline Plaisir recounts how an old woman wanted her to sing one of her songs, “They started to sing together, and then each of them took turns.”

Music has no borders

Music played a central role during the visit. Jane Birkin sang in two different locations accompanied by her pianist. She also improvised and played with Haitian musicians. She invited Jean-François Gay to sing with her at the Café des Arts in Petionville and at the Lakou Don Bosco (in the Bicentenaire district of Port-au-Prince), a centre for children formerly living on the streets. Lakou is also where the ATD Fourth World Street Library takes place once a week.

Jane Birkin and Jean-François Gay

The concert brought together more than 300 people, including the children from Don Bosco. For some, the memories and feelings of those in attendance remain just as vivid today:

“It was a magical moment. Despite the differences in culture, her songs touched our hearts. Woven tarpaulins covered the concert area to protect us from the sun. The light that shone through, the colours, and the smiles blended together gave the music a feeling of lightness. I still have this image, this impression of calmness, within me. For Jean-François, it was also a powerful moment; he was singing with an internationally renowned singer.”

Jacqueline Plaisir

  • “We had the opportunity to play for some of the most vulnerable children at Lakou Don Bosco. Ms Birkin came with us to this high-risk area; she was not scared. We visited Grand’Ravine and then the Bicentenaire district, where we played together. Everywhere, she was welcomed with open arms. She hugged and played with the children and said in all sincerity, ‘Good luck’! The country may be destroyed, but there are still people, and there is still hope!” This left a lasting impression on us; we are going to miss her. Music has no borders,” said a moved Jean-François Gay after learning of the death of Jane Birkin.

At the end of the day, other meetings took place with allies, friends and partners of ATD Fourth World. Jacqueline Plaisir remembers the discussions about Haiti and its reconstruction: “We sat down to talk about the country which had brought us together and of the future we wanted to believe in.”

The return: an appeal for the reconstruction of Haiti alongside those living in poverty

A public conference, proposed and organised by ATD Fourth World and hosted by Claire Hédon (a journalist for Radio France Internationale at the time), occurred on 9 April 2010. A large number of people gathered for this event: Jane Birkin, some Haitian members of the Volunteer Corps, ATD Fourth World activists, Eugen Brand (a Volunteer Corps member who joined the team in Haiti and who was also, at the time, Director General or ATD international), Pierre Duquesne (Ambassador responsible for interdepartmental coordination of aid and reconstruction of Haiti), among others. This event was a two-way conversation between the participants in Paris and ATD Fourth World members in Port-au-Prince and New Orleans, USA.

Jane Birkin took the opportunity to share her experiences of her visit to Haiti:

  • “For me, it was a reward for all these years of being something that resembles a singer: finding myself in these tents with these older women, these brave mothers and fathers and incredible grand-mothers. What [the Haitians] could share with us is how we may have potentially lost our sense of brotherhood. It’s this lesson that they taught me.”
  • “I was very proud to be with ATD Fourth World because I was discovering what they achieve daily when they visit these people. With the team, we met people living in the hills, people that didn’t dare come down.”

Meeting through music

Thirteen years later, Jean-François Gay remembers the feelings of confidence, solidarity and fraternity over the few days he spent with Jane Birkin:

“Her visit left a lasting impression. When you are an artist, you know that you can meet people from all over the world, thanks to music. She was like an angel to us because she was a person who came to Haiti, without even knowing us; she adapted so well to the situation and put her trust in us. All of this speaks to the kind of person she was. I want to send her family my condolences, and I would like to thank Ms Birkin. Here, we like to say that those who do good never die.”

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