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#4238: COMPAS RUCKUS (fwd)
Published Friday, May 19, 2000, in the Miami Herald
BY CARY DARLING_____ COMPAS RUCKUS
The gritty, industrial edges of North Miami -- especially a block of
low-slung, sun-baked buildings a tire-squeal away from West Dixie
Highway -- don't immediately summon up the carefree image of Caribbean
carnival. Yet inside a recording studio here, the story's different. No,
there's no party going on, though the infectious music -- booming
through loud and clear -- says otherwise. Reynaldo Martino is trying to
get a keyboard part just right while older brother Roberto helps out on
bass, dad offers advice and an engineer does those engineer things:
pushing buttons and pulling plugs. The groove they are laying
down is compas, the sweetly propulsive dance music from Haiti that --
much like samba in Brazil -- is the scintillating soundtrack for that
country's massive street carnivals. But the Martinos aren't just another
group of crafty Americans trying to crash the latest world-music wave.
Dad, Robert Martino, is a pioneer of compas (spelled with a ``k''
sometimes; the ``s'' is silent all times), having played in the Haitian
group Scorpio and currently in one of the genre's most popular bands,
the Miami-based Top Vice. It's his sons though, recording under the
name of T-Vice, who just might -- with a little savvy and a lot of luck
-- take compas from the avenues of Port-Au-Prince to the malls of
Peoria. Sure, guitarist/singer Roberto, 24, and keyboards player
Reynaldo, 22, won the hotly contested Mayor's Prize for best song at
Haiti's Carnival 2000 in March and nabbed a few Kompa Magazine Music
Awards, including group of the year, along the way. But the twosome, who
followed their dad to Miami and set up base here three years ago, wants
to rescue compas from its island isolation and make it as
recognizable to the general U.S. public as such Caribbean cousins as
Jamaican reggae or Trinidadian calypso. The 1998 studio album, Banm
T-Vice Mwen (``Give Me T-Vice'' in Haitian Creole), reportedly sold
85,000 copies, a huge amount in a genre in which 10,000 units is
respectable. They're leveraging that popularity into crossover dreams,
having recorded covers of songs by such Latin stars as Selena
and Elvis Crespo. And some of the new album, due in June, will be in
English. ``Singing in Creole, people don't understand what [compas
performers] are saying, and the market is very small,'' Roberto says
during a break from recording. ``The Americans and the Europeans need to
understand what they're telling them.''
T-Vice wants to rescue compas from its island isolation and make it as
recognizable as Jamaican reggae or Trinidadian calypso.
One of the things he wants to tell outsiders is that there's more to
Haiti than the images of poverty and violence that speed by on the
evening news. ``They always try to show the politics and the bad
parts,'' he offers. ``As a Haitian, it's my role to let people know the
nice parts, too. And, by my music, maybe I can attract those
people to come to our culture, maybe even come to Haiti to visit one
day and see for themselves that we have lots of nice things to offer,
too.'' Roberto's not worried that, in his zeal to appeal to mainstream
America, he'll incite a backlash from traditionalists. ``A lot of people
say it's time that somebody tried, at least,'' he explains. ``It's about
time that other people started recognizing this kind of music because,
let me tell you frankly, we've played all kinds of festivals that have
all kinds of people and the people are jamming to the music.
After the festivals, they all come to me and ask `what kind of music is
that? Where can I find the CD?' That means that they can jam to it but
you have to expose it right and try to make people come in.''
Jean-Jacques Stephen Alexis, who runs the Compas Central Web site
(www.compas.net), agrees that T-Vice could see a breakthrough. ``They
bring a new flavor,'' he says. ``They bring some type of new style where
they bring things from other countries. Among Haitians, compas has been
very popular, but what we've lacked is to get other cultures to endorse
it. By playing music from Selena and Crespo, they've given people an
opportunity to look at compas with different eyes.''
Not only that but, if T-Vice achieves its goal, it would make Miami --
which Kompa Magazine recently noted may be overtaking New York as U.S.
headquarters for Haitian music -- the undisputed leader in the field.
``New York used to be it but now things are changing. It's starting to
be Miami,'' Roberto declares. ``If a group can't make it in Miami, you
can't make it anywhere else.''
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SONS
Roberto says there was never any doubt about what he wanted to be.
``When I was small, I learned to live as a musician in a musician's
house,'' Roberto recalls. ``It was like drinking music, eating music all
the time.'' Of course, dad didn't create this music in a vacuum. Compas,
which at its best floats on a cloud of gossamer guitar, percolating
percussion and mesmerizing melody, has roots in everything from Central
African soukous and Dominican merengue to American jazz. Such early
pioneers as Les Jazz des Jeunes, Nemours Jean Baptiste and Weber
Sicot helped put compas on the map, though it was Tabou Combo, now
based in New York, who gave the style global cachet among world-music
enthusiasts. Their 1984 album, 8eme Sacrement, reached No. 1 in Paris,
and the band still has a large following internationally. More recently,
such groups as Boukman Eksperyans, who play a different form of Haitian
music called ra-ra, and New York hip-hop trio the Fugees, whose members
are of Haitian descent, have given Haiti a higher profile among
general-interest world and pop music fans. Robert Martino remembers that
it was when Roberto and Reynaldo were very young that he became aware of
their ambitions. ``One day, Roberto called me and said, `buy me a
guitar.' I brought him a guitar. A couple of months after that,
Reynaldo asked me, `can you bring me a keyboard?' '' While dad, with
his experience, could help cut through some of the morass of the
music biz, he couldn't shield them from those who thought they were
just riding his compas coattails. They were called T-Vice as a play on
the name of their father's band; ti in French-derived Haitian Creole (or
Kreyol) means ``little.'' ``It's been almost 10 years that we've been
working. When we started, everyone thought it was a joke,'' Roberto
concedes. ``We started very young, and we were just a bunch of kids
messing around. But once they saw the kind of potential, the
kind of grooves we were having, the music we were starting to make, it
was, `Wow, these kids have potential.' '' Since then, T-Vice, still
managed by their mother, Jessie Al-Khal, has become a sensation on the
compas scene, using Miami as a base to fan out and play all
over the Haitian diaspora (France, Quebec, the Boston-New
York-Connecticut corridor) and beyond. On June 15, the band -- which
also includes background vocalist James Cardozo and bass players Gerald
Kebreau and Eric Emile -- is set to play a multi-act concert for the
opening of a Four Seasons Hotel in Paris, and on July 2 they will
perform at the Haitian Compas Festival in Miami's Bayfront
Park; the festival reportedly drew 8,000 last year. Summed up Compas
Central's Alexis, ``Right now, if they're not No. 1 [in the
world of compas], they're close to it.''
Still, T-Vice's rise hasn't been without its setbacks. Much as with the
lugheaded East Coast/West Coast rivalry that afflicted American hip-hop
in the '90s, the compas landscape is pockmarked by rivalries among
performers. In the '60s, Nemours Jean Baptiste and Weber Sicot traded
insults, and according to the authoritative Rough Guide to World Music,
``rivalry -- often of a pretty vicious nature -- is a perennial feature
on the Haitian music scene. It . . . seeps into relationships, too,
among exiles in New York, Miami and Montreal.'' For much of the last
year, the Martinos have been embroiled in a spat with another popular
compas performer, Michel Martelly, a k a Sweet Micky. According to the
March/April edition of Kompa Magazine, a shoving match
between Roberto and Micky before a performance in Haiti led to a
lobbing of verbal grenades on television and radio. Both sides claimed
the other had said in concert, in reference to the number of
dark-skinned fans in attendance, ``Gen trop mouche nan let la''
(``There's too many flies in the milk''). The incident has set off a
firestorm in the compas world, and Roberto says he just wants the whole
thing to go away. He denies uttering the offending line. ``I never
said anything like that,'' he emphasizes. ``I'm Haitian. I'm proud to
be Haitian.'' He's reluctant to talk about the incident at all. ``I
didn't want to come to that subject anymore, but since you asked me,
well, I don't think it's something that we should even talk about. We're
in the year 2000 right now; it [that comment] is something people
shouldn't even be saying.'' Roberto says that when he made the claim
about Micky, he was only repeating what others had told him. ``There's
nothing that says he said it for real,'' he explains. ``It's all people
saying it just to put rivalry between us; that's really sad.
It's time for us to bury the subject because it's not getting us
anywhere.'' Alexis doesn't think this flare-up will hurt T-Vice in the
long run and doesn't believe the alleged comments echo their beliefs.
``I've seen those kids, and I know their father, and from being around
them, I don't get that feeling,'' he says. ``It's a non-issue.''
If controversy has swirled around T-Vice offstage, there's none in the
band's lyrics. In fact, while the social situation in Haiti is often at
a boiling point, Roberto says he stays far away from politics.
``A lot of [compas] groups try to make political songs. But, for us,
the country's so split. Frankly, Haiti right now is very bad. There's
not a lot of protection toward musicians, toward anybody. If they don't
like what you say, or the way you think, you might be in danger so we
try and keep ourselves away from these kinds of things.''
THE BIG CROSSOVER?
More pressing than rivalries or politics is the Martinos' goal of
taking compas to a wider audience. For all of their successes, they
still have a long way to go. T-Vice has yet to get a major label, or
even one of the more well-known world-music indies, to sign the group.
(Their albums are on small labels that specialize in Haitian music.)
Roberto says some majors have expressed interest -- ``if a band like
T-Vice sells 80,000 copies, that means there's capability'' -- but are
waiting to see what the new album does before making a move.
Jacob Edgar, vice-president of A&R (artist and repertoire) at San
Francisco's Putumayo Records, a leading world-music label, has not heard
T-Vice but doesn't think it's unreasonable that compas -- which he calls
``great music'' -- could attain some level of national visibility. ``The
main reason it hasn't crossed over is it hasn't been worked
appropriately,'' he reasons. ``I can't think of any [compas]
album that has been put out and marketed correctly. The Haitian market
is a very insular market. They can make substantial amounts of money
focusing on their market, and a lot of Haitian artists don't go beyond
that.'' Others are far more skeptical. Larry Birnbaum, editor of the
world-music magazine Rhythm, says compas performers should keep even the
faintest hopes for Ricky Martin-style success in check. ``There's been
new-generation compas for how many years? There's been this new compas
with dub and reggae, lately they've had rap in it. Nothing has worked,''
says Birnbaum who says he is a fan of compas but hasn't heard T-Vice yet
either. ``None of this Antilles stuff, like zouk [the music of
Guadeloupe and Martinique], has crossed over. With Latin, there's a much
bigger base for that.'' Still, whatever level of success T-Vice
achieves, Martino is happy -- even if his kids ultimately outpace him in
popularity. ``They make me feel proud. They're my sons, right?,'' he
says. ``I don't have any problem with that, and the band, they've seen
Roberto and Reynaldo since they were kids. [The boys] used to sleep
behind Top Vice [when we were playing], and they'd come with us and stay
late.'' Then he says it one more time: ``We're proud of them.''