Marie Clotilde "Toto" Bissainthe (1934 – June 4, 1994) was a Haitian actress and singer known for her innovative blend of traditional Vodou and rural themes and music with contemporary lyricism and arrangements. Born in Cap-Haïtien in 1934, she left Haiti at an early age to pursue her acting studies abroad. Her career started in theatre with the company Griots, of which she was a founding member in 1956. Griots was at the vanguard of négritude-inspired cultural institutions in France, and was the first African theatre company in Paris.
The Griots was the troupe that gave the first performance of Jean Genet's play "The Blacks." She also worked with the playwright Samuel Beckett and the director Roger Blin and acted in several films.
With a groundbreaking performance in 1973 at La vieille grille in Paris, Toto Bissainthe established herself as singer-songwriter-composer, stunning the audience with her soul-stirring renditions of original compositions that paid homage to the lives, struggles, miseries and spirituality of working class and rural Haitians.
The singer and actress Toto Bissainthe was recognized by many as a champion of Haitian music abroad.
An artist in exile, Toto Bissainthe will be unable to return to the Haiti that so inspired her until the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. However, the multiple disappointments of the unending democratic transition and political infighting would forever embitter the outspoken artist, who had long dreamed of a return to help rebuild her motherland. Saddened by Haiti's social and political degradation, Toto Bissainthe's health would enter a downward spiral ending with her death from liver damage on June 4, 1994. The cause was cirrhosis, her family said.
Toto Bissainthe studied acting in France where she founded The Griots with Roger Blain. This was the first black theatre company in France. Some of the plays titled in French included Papa bon Dieux, Les negres, Negres, negres, L’ombre de la ravine, and L’invite de Pierre, among others. She also had some roles in film, including Les tripes au soleil and En l’autre bord .
She began singing in 1962, after a return to Haiti. “Because in my family, we always loved singing and I missed it. I started a little bit by chance: in a hotel…and on that evening I remember that I sang a song”. She continued singing at that hotel once a week for three to four months in French and in Haitian Creole.
Among her albums are Ti Lorai Cale released in 1976, Toto à New York from 1975, Toto chante Haïti from 1977, Haïti Chanté- Chant du Monde published in 1977, and others. Toto was constantly praised in the media for her music. In an 1967 Haitian newspaper, a journalist wrote the following praising her album:
Toto Bissainthe will, at the very least, have the merit of having introduced through song to Haiti, a way that is only reserved to a minority. What will remain of this effort, the evanescent memories of an evening under the stars, a cry thrust in the desert? Do not blame her for lack of passion, but more surely our secular sleep. (Translated from French) 
In a document about Toto’s album Toto Bissainthe chante Haïti, it is stated, “Toto Bissainthe sings, and the memory of Haiti becomes the memory of the world, or the universal human. Vodou is then revealed, tapped in each one of us” (Translated from French). Some lyrics include, “I cry for the mourning of Haiti/Haiti my dear, your children are dead/and the others are naked/Aytitoma, your blood is in the diaspora/The country is dying/Who will hold the mourning/Haiti has been blinded/Haiti stopped/Haiti was “zombified”/ Who will hold the mourning/Haiti, I call on you/I call on you as you call on me/That you call and reunite your blood/for the great Koumbite” Translated from French) . These are the words for the song Lied Van. This particular album has songs composed with a tamtam, a type of gong.
Toto Bissainthe was very often lauded for being a singer representing the black diaspora. In a newspaper clip from the year 1980, there’s an article titled Toto Bissainthe: The Sortileges of the Black diaspora which states, “Her creation has for ambition to refer to a lost freedom that has yet to be found. For having personally lived in Haitian exile, she searches for a certain authenticity in her music” (Translated from French).
In an interview she stated that she sings for the black people
Simply because we must. What I speak of is unity. With colonization and all of the cultural alienation that we were subjected to, we became very separated. I see it all over the Antilles. There’s very little people who see themselves as Antilleans. They consider themselves Martiniquais, Guadeloupian, Haitian, Trinidadian, Cuban, etc.
Toto Bissainthe left her native land during a time of high tensions in Haiti. Francois Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, ran a military regime in Haiti from 1957 to 1971. His son Jean-Claude Duvalier, also known as “Baby Doc”, succeeded him from 1971 until he was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986.
In 1980, the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship forbade all media critiques; they began exiling journalists.
In La Vie Ouvriére newspaper, she spoke about her frustration regarding this matter. The interviewer asks her how is it that she was able to sing in Haiti, when he thought that she couldn’t. “I can return, but only for one show. I feel frustrated to not be able to give a popular show. So I will return. Right now, with everything that is being said about the regime, they have a bit more attention over their image. And that’s why I can return”, she stated. She then added “All of the people that I love, I would tell them what I want, against the government and all that, and [the government] wouldn’t find that worrisome because they know that the people don’t speak French…still that can still give some consciousness to some. But as soon as I would sing in creole, I would make more impact and they immediately banned me” (Translate from French) (Catala).
She went on to give a concert less than 2 months before the fall of the Duvalier regime at the Rex Theatre. At this concert she told people her message of justice, hope, love, life and revolt. The concert concluded in a standing ovation. She returned to Haiti indefinitely after the regime had ended
When she returned to Haiti, in what she called a “slow return”, “she pursued her creation with the support of her partner, the American journalist Michael Norton”. She also collaborated with Haitian artists and writers, Syto Cavé and Lyonel Trouillot.
Personal Life and Death
Toto Bissainthe married American journalist Michael Norton; he died in 2008 at the age of 66 years. Toto had two daughters, Milena and Souqhaina. Milena currently owns the copyright to Toto Bissainthe’s website. She also had three grandchildren.
Toto passed away at the age of 60 in 1994. Her family shared that the cause was cirrhosis.
- Toto à New York (Chango, 1975)
- Toto chante Haïti (Arion, 1977, Prix de la chanson TF1 1978, reissued 1989)
- Haïti Chanté - Chant du Monde (reissued, 1995)
- Coda (reissued, 1996)
- World Network Vol. 43: Haiti (with Ti Koka) (World Network, 1999)
- Rétrospective (Créon Music, 2006)
"Toto (Marie-Clotilde) Bissainthe" pp 153–159 in Mémoire de femmes by Jasmine Claude-Narcisse, UNICEF Haïti, 1997
- Les tripes au soleil, 1959.
- Le théâtre de la jeunesse: La case de l'oncle Tom, Le, 1963.
- La Noire de..., 1966.
- L'homme au contrat, television series, 1974.
- En l'autre bord, 1978.
- West Indies, 1979.
- Toto Bissainthe de Sarah Maldoror (5mn - documentary), 1984.
- Haitian Corner, 1988.
- An Alé de Irène Lichtenstein (16mm - 70mn - documentary), 1990.
- L'homme sur les quais, 1993.
- "Toto Bissainthe". Retrieved 22 September 2014.
- "Toto Bissainthe". Retrieved 22 September 2014.
- "Toto Bissainthe, Actress and Singer, 60". The New York Times. 1994-06-09. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
- Weiss, Jason (1999-01-01). "French‐Caribbean music: An introduction". Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas 32 (58): 75–76. doi:10.1080/08905769908594586. ISSN 0890-5762.
- ":: Le site Officiel de Toto Bissainthe ::". totobissainthe.com. Retrieved 2015-12-21.
- Chansons sans Frontières. Toto Bissainthe: Une main tendue à toutes les mains blessèes du monde. Date Unknown. Web. 18 December 2015.
- Sandler, Roger. Le Nouvelliste. Le Nouvelliste. November 1967. Taken from totobissainthe.com
- Presse- Paroles et muique. Le site Officiel de Toto Bissainthe. Web. 18 December 2015. Taken from totobissainthe.com
- Toto Bissainthe: les sortilèges de la diaspora noire. Liberation. 5 November 1980. (Source found here http://www.totobissainthe.com/critt7.pdf)
- Catala, J.C. Toto Bissainthe: Je chante l’histoire du people noir. La Vie Ouvriére. 29 October 1980. (Taken from http://www.totobissainthe.com/critt4_4.pdf)
- Haïti-Spectacle: Le souvenir de Toto Bissainthe, interprète révoltée. AlterPresse en Haiti - Beaucoup plus que l'actualité!. Alterpress. 7 June 2015. Web. 15 December 2015
- Décès de Michael Norton, ancien correspondant de AP. Metropole Haiti. 17 June 2008. Web. 19 December 2015.
- Toto Bissainthe Official Web Site
- Toto (Marie Clotilde) Bissainthe Mémoire de femmes, Online version
- Toto Bissainthe Filmography at IMDB (Internet Movie Database)