DJ Michael Brun on Community-Building in Haiti

Miami-based DJ Michael Brun comes to Denver this Thursday, March 3, for a night at Beta. Brun has made a name for himself blending progressive house with musical styles from his native Haiti, including RaRa and Konpa, and his latest release, Wherever I Go, was in fact recorded in Haiti in collaboration with the Audio Institute and Artists for Peace and Justice, a nonprofit that connects artists to community building efforts in Haiti (and threw a hell of a New Year's Eve party in Aspen). Westword caught up with Brun to talk about his new music, the links between music and community building, and his recent travels.

Westword: Tell us about your new collaborative single, "Wherever I Go." How did that come about?

Michael Brun: I recently went to Haiti, where I'm from — I was born in Port-au-Prince. I went to a school in Jacmel called the Audio Institute and created this song with the school in collaboration called "Wherever I Go".... I'd visited the school a few times before and had seen how talented and educated and committed the students were. It's a full scholarship-based school, and I just knew that any sort of school or cultural push in Haiti — it's rare to find programs like that, and I really love when I saw how excited everybody was there, and I knew I wanted to be able to help in any way I could. So we organized a song, I did a whole call to students — the campus has a great studio — and 25 students showed up on a Sunday, and we did an instrumental on that one day. Then I got the vocal done with some writers in the U.S. called the Cheat Codes, and then rerecorded the vocal in Haiti with Haitian singers. It was a collaboration effort that made me so happy to involve two things I love, which is music and education.

What was it like working with Haitian musicians J.perry and BelO?

So J.Perry is actually my family, he's my cousin, and he's a really talented artist, and he's had a breakthrough recently with some hit songs. And BelO is like a very well-respected and extremely talented artist. I felt that both of them represented the concept and the spirit of the song. Its about positivity and building something good together in Haiti. It was like a natural fit, and I was really happy they were interested to work together.

So when did you move to the U.S.?

I lived in Port-au-Prince until I was sixteen. I went to school there, my family lived there. So I grew up in Haiti. I had this opportunity to go to Indiana, to go to...Culver Military Academy. A friend of mine who'd graduated had recommended it, so I ended up going and doing my senior and junior year of high school there. That was my first experience living in the U.S. Then I got into college in North Carolina, where I was a bio major in pre-med. It was a smooth transition, luckily.

When did you decide you were going to commit yourself full-time to music?

I'd actually wanted to be a doctor since I was a little kid — I'd wanted to be a pediatrician, specifically — and music was just something my parents encouraged. They made me take piano lessons, guitar, singing, violin. So I'd always had music in my family as a hobby, never a full-time thing, even though my dad actually had a band in Haiti that was a pretty successful band called Skandal. It was a really successful band when he was younger; he had a studio in the house and everything. And I guess I somehow absorbed it all without even realizing it. And just as I was going through school and my music was getting more and more popular on the Internet, it slowly became something more concrete, and I had the option to actually get to do it as a full-time career. I had never even thought of that option.

You've mentioned your desire to become a doctor, and now you're working to bolster the music community in Haiti. Where does this desire to give back come from?

When I was growing up, my parents constantly reminded me that I lived in a country where a lot of people don't have opportunities. The opportunities to get a good education, have a good family, not have to worry about basic needs, basic necessities — what am I going to eat next, if I have a home. And they just always instilled in me the idea of being grateful for what I have. So I felt like, because I was given so much, I had to  give back in some way. Medicine, at first, was the most natural thing for me, because I did really well in school. So I had scholarships all throughout high school, then also in college; I had almost a full scholarship at Davidson. It was a situation where I felt like medicine would allow me to have the biggest impact on what I was doing, and because I was good at school, I felt I had a direct path to do something for the community. Then when music came into the picture and the audience I had would be so much larger, there were more people I could reach, and hopefully [things] I could accomplish. I realized what I really wanted to do was community-building, and that was what has always driven me. What was it like working at the Audio Institute?

It's a relatively new project; it's been around for a few years now. But the coolest thing about it is that all of the students who are there, they're working very hard to get the scholarship positions — most of them come from disadvantaged communities. So they don't have an opportunity to even think about getting a job, but then to get a job they love is so rare. It's a film school and a music school — so seeing that drive on both sides and promoting entertainment and culture, and building a cultural background in the country — it was really incredible just to see that. The graduates — some of them have gotten jobs in studios in Haiti, and some of them work in media and television. So there's a real follow-through in creating an entire life for somebody, based on their drive.

What have you taken away, artistically, working and growing up in Haiti?

For a long time, I was making progressive house and electronic music. So the kinds of sounds I was using weren't traditionally Haitian, [and] I'd listened to all types of stuff. My mom was really into '50s and '60s and '70s rock and funk; and my dad loved the '80s new-age stuff. And on top on that, I'd just hear Haitian music living in Haiti from either my dad or family or friends. So I had a really diverse musical background, and I think that combination of hearing everything and making my own interpretation of it created the kind of music I was making. And now Wherever I Go makes a much more deliberate use of Haitian sounds and culture. I wanted to try and do that, only if I could pay respect to the Haitian culture. I mean, it's something that's been around for so long, and I wanted to make sure it was used properly and it wasn't like a gimmick or anything.
What can audiences expect at your show here?

I'm so excited to be here in Denver, and I've heard nothing but good things about the music community, how awesome the taste is, and shows and everything are. So it's really exciting to get to visit for the first time. As a performer getting to be there, and as a tourist, getting to explore the city. I think that's one of the coolest parts about being a performer: I get to see what all of these different places are like and what the people are like. And especially wherever I go, I've been making it a huge goal to...have a cultural element... where I can go visit as many landmarks that are there, and then play the show at night. So in St. Louis I went to the Arch, in D.C. I went to the Monument, in New York I went to Times Square — the big monuments in the cities, to see what that's like.

Do you have any landmarks in mind for Denver?

I was going to ask you that, recommendations to see. The things I do know was like...that stadium, Red Rocks Amphitheatre. What would you suggest?

Westword suggested the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which, come to think of it, would be an awesome place for a rave! Until that happens, catch Michael Brun at Beta this Thursday, March 3, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the 18-and-over show.
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Luke Leavitt
Contact: Luke Leavitt