The song Panama Mwen Tonbe tells of an event that occurred in 1896. President Louis Mondestin FlorvilHyppolite headed to Jacmel to secure the city from forces led by Merisier Jeannis, a Kako leader. While riding his horse to battle, Hyppolite had a heart attack and fell to his death. The song recounts the tragic incident, using a metaphor – the Panama hat falling- to describe the demise of the president. Ever since, the song has been used to signal to politicians that one day they too will fall from power. The melody of the song was adapted from Tabatyè Mwen Tonbe.
During the 19th and 20th century, hats were commonly worn and Panama hats were fashionable. Such hats were fitting apparel for a distinguished politician like President Hyppolite. In the U.S., President Theodore Roosevelt helped to further popularize the Panama hat by wearing one himself on a trip from Panama. It is because the Panama hat was deemed suitable for dignitaries that it is spoken about in this song about President Hyppolite.
Panama hats were first mass produced in Ecuador and then sent to Panama. From there, they were shipped all over the globe. These hats got their name not from the country from which they were made but rather from their point of distribution, Panama. France started constructing the Panama Canal in 1882. Nearly all the initial 20,000 workers came from the Caribbean and a significant portion came from Haiti. These workers wore Panama hats for sun protection. Traffic between Haiti and Panama in the 1880’s may have enhanced the popularity of the hat in Haiti.
The fallen Panama hat signals Hyppolite’s voyage to peyi san chapo, meaning to the life hereafter. Although President Hyppolite did not make it to Jacmel and died in Port-au-Prince, the song takes artistic liberty and imposes a religious dimension to the historical event. It has the hat falling at the Bainet Crossroad, often pronounced as Benin Crossroad (Kafou Benen).
Benin was an important West African Kingdom known for its metal sculptures and President Hyppolite became associated with metal works after the building of the Mache an Fè. Crossroads are symbolic of where the world of the living intersect with that of the Ancestors. This is why this song sets President Hyppolite’s fallen hat at the Ancestral Crossroad, the Benin Crossroad. To achieve this, the song has the President travelling to Lavale Jacmel, a region near the city of Jacmel. President Hyppolite was unable to read the writing on the wall and left his hat, or his unfinished task, to be picked up by whoever was behind him as he departed to peyi san chapo.
During Hyppolite's presidency there was a strong development effort made in Haiti. Coffee was trading at a high price and that allowed the country to have a fiscal surplus to invest in infrastructure. As a result, President Hypollite was able to build 2 metal bridges. One was built at Haut-D'Eau in Cap-Haitian and the other over the Grand-Anse River, not to mention many other metal work projects that his administration undertook. This is all the many reasons why the song hoped that someone would pick up the hat to continue the modernization of Haiti.
In another song reported by Harold Courlander, Hyppolite fails to recognize his fallen hat is an omen and presses on in his pursuit of Merisier Jeannis. In doing so, he incurred his death. President Hyppolite’s trip to peyi san chapo is the focus of the song. This is why Panama mwen tonbe is repeated multiple times, usually 3 times. It is the main theme of the song.
President Hyppolite ascended to the Presidency through service in the military. Under his Presidency, his powerful army provided Haiti 7 years of stability and the economy was strong. To recognize that, in 1999, the Haitian government issued its largest bill, the 1000 gourde, with the picture of President Hyppolite on it. President Hyppolite lived the life of a warrior and died a warrior’s death. For this reason, in countless songs, President Hyppolite is revered as Ogou Panama. Some people pronounce Ogou Panama as Ogou Palama, a variant pronunciation of the Nago word Palema meaning to organize and to establish order.
President Hyppolite is deserving of his name as Ogou Palama (Ogou Panama) because he worked diligently to modernize Haiti. He is revered as a Lwa to honor his great accomplishments. His administration introduced the telephone to Haiti, linked Haiti to the world using oceanic cables, and constructed the famous Metal Market in Port-au-Prince, the Mache an Fè. For certain, as Ogou Palama (Panama), President Hyppolite made a remarkable effort to organize and establish proper order in the country’s affairs
In remembrance of President Hyppolite, the country sings Panama mwen tonbe, Panama mwen tonbe, Panama mwen tonbe...With hope that future leaders would pick up from where he left off, we can all say: Sa ki dèyè ranmase li pou mwen.
References: Largey, Michael D.Recombinant Mythology and the Alchemy of Memory: Occide Jeanty, Ogou, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Haiti. Journal of American Folklore - Volume 118, Number 469, Summer 2005, pp. 327-353
Hyppolite’s Service to Haiti: The death of a good president prevents another war. New York Times, March 31, 1896