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#4017: Cultural Festival Brings Haitians and Caribbeans Together (fwd)

From: Rosann Clements <rosann@onemain.com>
Cultural Festival Brings Haitians and Caribbeans Together
By Brian Stevens
Haitian Times Staff
MIAMI - Under the punishing rays of an intensely hot, late May sun, Albert
Alexis must wrangle with cops, carnies and kids, all part of a seemingly
never-ending effort to get his Sixth Annual Roots and Culture Festival 2000
off the ground. "Right here, this one right here," Alexis, 40, shouts,
bounding out of a golf cart he uses to speed down North Miami Avenue looking
to solve one logistical problem after another as the festival kicked-off
last Saturday afternoon.
This time Alexis is pointing out to Miami Police a truck belonging to an
illegal ice cream vendor, parked within the boundaries of the festival, a
five block stretch of North Miami Avenue closed to automobile traffic from
Northeast 54 Street to 59 street. As officers see to it that the truck
leaves, Alexis scurries across the street to tell those setting-up the
kiddie carnival rides that they are in the wrong location. Then he bounces
back behind the wheel of his golf cart, inviting a visitor along for a
whirlwind ride past booth after booth of this transformed avenue where
vendors sell CDs, sodas, T-shirts and jerk chicken. In less than 10 minutes,
Alexis is confronted with no fewer than 10 different problems, from sound
stage equipment blocking a road for emergency vehicles, to a truck load of
bottled water that has mysteriously disappeared, to one of the festival's
major starts - Rita Marley - waiting to be picked up at Miami International
"I'm not stressed at all," said Alexis, president of the Roots and Culture
Festival, Inc., "everything is under control, smooth," he says, sliding one
hand across the open air as his other hand navigates the speeding golf cart
between the slow moving festival goers that clog North Miami Avenue. In the
face of such endless headaches and logistical nightmares, why does Alexis
take on such a momentous task to orchestrate what he himself admits has been
a consistently money-losing two-day festival that in the end, may just
barely break even this year? "It's all for J.J.," Alexis said, referring to
the late Rulx J.J. Damas who launched the Roots and Culture Festival six
years ago on a shoe-string budget with the dream of creating an event that
Miami's Haitian and Caribbean community could call its own. Damas, 33, whom
Alexis called "my best friend and partner," was shot to death Dec. 3, 1998
on a Port-au-Prince street, victim of a deadly robbery attempt during a trip
home to a country where lawlessness creeps ever further into the realm of
everyday life.
Alexis recites the date - Dec. 3, 1998 - as if it is etched in his soul,
haunting him to this day. The killing, Alexis said with an expressionless
face, was never solved. Damas, a real estate agent and music promoter, was
in Haiti to donate hurricane relief items in the wake of Hurricane Georges.
He was also searching for property to build his dream house when robbers
attacked him, his girlfriend and his father in Croix des Bouquets section of
Port-au-Prince. "J.J. is the heart behind this," Alexis said, pointing to a
handful of helmet-wearing children pedaling their bikes through the
The festival featured its first ever Kids World, with clowns, face painting,
storytelling and music and dance numbers aimed at the four feet and under
crowd. "This brings families together," Alexis said of the Roots and Culture
festival, "and to think of J.J. and the work he put in to this brings tears
to my eyes," Alexis said, his voice trailing off. Tears, however, were hard
to be found among the families and friends, Haitians and Hispanics, whites
and blacks that congregated around the grandstand Saturday and Sunday
jamming to the sounds of groups that included Boukman Eksperyans, the
Phanttoms and Ayabonmbe. Speakers stacked 10 feet tall surrounded the main
stage at 54th Street and North Miami Avenue, blasting sounds so strong,
passers-by said the music "shook their insides." Frantz Lindor, 34, of
Little Haiti, didn't seem to mind the loud sounds from bands like Boukman.
"I came to check out the beautiful women and that's what I'll be doing all
day," said Lindor, with a straw Haitian hat perched at an angle on his head
and his shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest. Lindor was one among thousands who
came out to dance, drink and eat on this Miami Memorial Day weekend with
temperatures reaching well in to the 90s. A cup of ice in one hand and a
yellow Western Union handkerchief in the other, Lindor, wearing shorts and
open-toed sandals was content to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells under
the shimmering midday sun. "I'm just having a good time, man," he said,
before drifting off down toward the bandstand at 54 Street.
More than 30 musical acts in all were slated to perform everything from
reggae to rap to racine in front of crowds that organizers said reached well
past 150,000 people. A healthy police presence was on display, as squad cars
lined the street and cops mingled with spectators up and down the avenue.
Despite a noon to 7 p.m. schedule, the pounding sounds of high-decibel music
could be heard drifting through Little Haiti well past 10 p.m. on Saturday
night. At least one of the Roots and Culture Festival's major sponsors
seemed pleased with the turnout as he surveyed the scene Saturday afternoon.
Wearing a bright white Air d' Ayiti T-shirt adorned with the company's red
and blue logo, president and CEO Charles H. Voigt said his sense of heritage
compelled him to be a part of the weekend festival. "Look around," Voigt
said, gesturing to the crowd of Haitians, Jamaicans and Islanders that
surrounded him and filled the foreground before the bandstand. "This is the
Haitian community, this is the Caribbean, this is Jamaica and I must be part
of it. It is us," Voigt said, as he munched on a plate of chicken wings.
Festival organizer Alexis, a fulltime music promoter and owner of the Job
Depot, a Little Haiti employment service, spent most of his time from
January to Memorial Day pulling together the countless and diverse talent,
sponsors, workers and volunteers that make the annual Roots and Culture
Festival such a crowd pleaser.