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7782: compasfest (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Compas gets cool

It's Friday night at a Biscayne Boulevard hot spot and a couple stand on the 
crowded dance floor face to face, forehead against forehead, nose touching 
nose, eyes locked tight. Their feet don't seem to be moving, their arms hold 
each other's motionless waists.

Yet the two are definitely dancing in time to the Haitian compas band. For a 
music from a country known for its extreme poverty and harsh political 
violence, compas (pronounced like its Creole spelling, kompa) is 
surprisingly gentle.

The popular Haitian style pulses with a mild-mannered 4/4 beat; singers 
croon and cajole; the melody line, carried traditionally by horns but 
contemporarily by keyboards, is a lilting filigree of high notes. Compas is 
merengue on the down-low, salsa without the snap.

But don't be too fooled by compas' Clark Kent facade. Just like the numerous 
percussion instruments that confound the beat, the compas scene is full of 
twists and turns. As Jean Herard ``Richie'' Richard, drummer and producer 
for the Miami band Zenglen, says of the subtle way couples slow-dance, ``You 
might look at them and say, `Are they dancing?' But if you look closely, 
their hips are moving.''


And the music may be slowly on the move as well. After years as the poor 
cousin of their Jamaican, Cuban, and Dominican neighbors, Haitian rhythms 
have been enjoying a recent spate of heightened activity and visibility, 
thanks to an infusion of young blood and the mainstream success of 
Haitian-American rapper Wyclef Jean.

``The music is becoming more popular,'' says Cynthia Blanc, producer of the 
Haitian Music Awards and a DJ on WLQY-AM (1320). ``There's a new generation 
getting involved, doing things that weren't done before: magazines, shows, 
websites. And there are new musicians, influenced by rap, reggae, and pop.''

Coincidentally, during the past several years, Miami has become the new 
center of compas creativity with a surge of popular bands and venues. 
There's the newly opened Planet Kreyol on Biscayne Boulevard near North 
Miami , the third annual Haitian Compas Festival on May 19 at Bayfront Park, 
the Roots & Culture Festival on the streets of Little Haiti May 27-28, and 
such performers as T-Vice, Sweet Micky, Saima, Nu Look and Eklips who now 
call South Florida home, at least part of the year.

``For a long time New York was on top in terms of shows and sales. Now the 
groups on top come from Miami,'' says Isaie Mathias, owner of Boujoly record 
store in North Miami.

``Compas is getting to another level,'' concurs Wilson Jean, drummer for the 
Miami-based band D'Zine. ``More outsiders are involved, more American and 
Latin people are listening.''

However, compas is still struggling for credibility even within the Haitian 
community, let alone with a larger audience. It's hampered by a lack of 
economic infrastructure, rampant CD piracy, and intense inter- and 
intra-band rivalries that consume artists' energy and alienate listeners. 
With so many hurdles, compas is not likely to follow its Caribbean compadres 
to the great crossover trough any time soon.

``It can't be as big as Latin pop,'' says Elliot Alouidor, aka Prince Ello, 
D'Zine's velvet-voiced singer. ``We don't have a very large audience. And 
the Haitian music business is not that well organized.''


Saxophonist Nemours Jean-Baptiste created ``compas direct'' in the 1960s, as 
a Haitian big-band counterpart to Cuban mambo, Dominican merengue, American 
swing, and Brazilian samba. Compas' rhythm is characterized by the 4/4 beat 
of the bass and kick drum, while floor toms, congas, and cowbell add 
syncopation. In the '70s and '80s, New York-based Tabou Combo even flirted 
with pop visibility, especially in Europe where the act's 8eme Sacrement 
reached No. 1 in Paris.

``From its inception, this new rhythm was approved of by everyone. Both 
young and old could dance to it with ease,'' say the liner notes on the 
Jean-Baptiste album, The Sensation of the Day.

That's still true today. Unlike with salsa or swing, it's ridiculously easy 
to get into the compas groove: Just let the music softly move you. You can 
wrap your arms around your partner or just move at your own pace in close 
proximity. There are no dips and spins; there's no room for them.

``You don't have a lot of space on the dance floor, and that's how people 
like it,'' Richard says. ``It's a way to get with your girl. To dance 
compas, don't fight it. It's very wild and strong. You ruin this party if 
you turn on the lights.''

``Haitians love to dance,'' Alouidor says. ``The way they dance is like 
they're making love.''

(Compas, it should be noted, is not the same as Haitian roots, or racine, 
music. Roots music, which came to fame in the 1990s with Boukman Eksperyans, 
is Haitian folk music, influenced by vodou rituals, and often political in 
content. Compas is Haitian pop: escapist and fun.)

Contemporary compas got a boost in the mid '80s, with new generation acts 
like Zenglen and New York's Zin. Inspired by zouk music from Martinique, 
these bands featured sweet-toned vocalists.

Meanwhile, bands like South Florida's Top Vice and Haiti's Digital Express 
exchanged the large band format for sequencers and synthesizers. For a 
while, ``techno compas'' performers such as T-Vice (featuring the sons of 
Top Vice's Robert Martino) and Sweet Micky dominated the scene.

Compas also began reaching new audiences by changing venues. Whereas 
promoters used to rent hotel ballrooms, where couples would arrive dressed 
in their finest, compas shows are now held mostly at clubs like Planet 
Kreyol, Hallandale's Baja Beach Club, Hollywood's Deco Drive, and North 
Miami's Norman's Billiards.

``That changed the whole industry as far as the way people attend parties,'' 
Blanc says. ``Now, people are not as formal.''

At Kreyol on a recent Friday night, where D'Zine is the house band, women in 
long white dresses mingle with young men in baggy hip-hop gear. The crowd, 
Alouidor estimates, is ``100 percent Haitian.''

Many of the younger attendees have been inspired by the chart-topping 
success of Wyclef Jean of the hip-hop group the Fugees. The New Jersey 
rapper has been vocal about his Haitian heritage. His 1997 solo debut The 
Carnival was based on Haiti's annual Mardi Gras festivities and included 
songs in Creole. ``Wyclef has helped tremendously,'' Mathias says. ``With 
him came the popularity of Haitian music.''

Inspired by Jean, as well as the Latin music explosion, Haitian artists 
began angling for mainstream American audiences, adding hip-hop and R&B 
elements to their sound. If Ricky Martin can cross over, why can't Sweet 
Micky? If Baha Men can take soca to the top of the pops, can T-Vice carry 

``Latin artists are millionaires,'' Blanc says. ``They figured out a 
solution to the language barrier. Reggae came up with a crossover solution. 
Why can't we?''


The worldwide Creole-speaking population is nowhere near as large as its 
Spanish counterpart. Still, there are an estimated one million Haitians in 
the United States and 7 million in Haiti. There are also sizable Haitian 
communities in Montreal and Paris, as well as fans in Martinique and 
Guadeloupe. Bands already tour these markets regularly, drawing thousands in 
some cities.

Nonetheless, a successful Haitian record sells only about 50,000 copies 
globally, insiders estimate (there are no official figures). ``We need to 
put more energy and focus into changing our marketing strategies,'' Blanc 

Several people point to rampant piracy of CDs as a major hurdle for Haitian 
music. ``You spend your life making music,'' complains Gracia Delva, 
Zenglen's charismatic singer, ``then somebody steals it.''

According to Mathias, piracy is no longer as large of a threat as it was a 
few years ago. He cites the dearth of music-oriented Haitian radio as the 
biggest obstacle to compas' success.

Mathias also notes the lack of organization among record companies. While he 
purchases all of his rap and urban CDs from one distributor, he has to 
contact four to five companies to stock Haitian discs.

Haitian industry players tend to be amateur entrepreneurs who have their 
hands in multiple pies. Every band manager seems to also own a record store 
and may promote shows or run a label as well.

Some criticize promoters for being conservative. ``Every year these 
festivals have the same bands. Haitian promoters don't want to take risks on 
new artists,'' says Richard Pitka, a Fort Lauderdale-based promoter of 
Haitian events. ``The promoter has to promote music, not just make money.''

Alouidor lays much of the blame for compas' limited success at the creators' 
own feet. ``We don't have good producers,'' he says. ``The quality of the 
music is questionable.''


Then there are the rivalries. While neither new nor peculiar to compas, the 
mud-slinging has reached a fever pitch. The buzz of the upcoming festival is 
that D'Zine and Zenglen will be pitted against each other. D'Zine's members 
broke off from Zenglen several years ago.

A certain amount of competition is healthy. If the two bands goad each other 
into putting on tremendous shows, then everyone benefits. ``This showdown is 
going to show the fans how much they can play and what's their message,'' 
says Niel ``Designer'' Homy, host of Radio Compas on WLQY.

But the rivalry between two acts, T-Vice and Sweet Micky, has reached a 
venomous, personal level that has undermined their popularity. ``It hurts 
them more than anything else, but it also hurts the market,'' Mathias says.

In the current issue of Kompa magazine, there's little room for discussion 
of musical ideas or, say, politics back home, in between the reports of who 
said what about whom. Back-stabbing, jealousy, and egotism seem to be more 
important than woodshedding to some compas musicians.

``We don't have unity,'' Alouidor says. ``There's something in our culture 
where we can't get along.''

Richard and Alouidor both claim there is no animosity between their bands. 
``The public blows up the rivalry,'' says Richard. ``We don't take it 
personal. The bands get along.''

That may be necessary if compas is going to deliver on the promise of its 
growing talent base. ``The bands have to come together as one to offer what 
we have to other communities,'' Delva says.

Many compas acts are moving away from commercial influences and returning to 
traditional lineups, with horn and percussion sections. The music is also 
retrenching to its laid-back pace. According to Mathias, the most popular CD 
at Boujoly is currently Blackout, on which the group Mizik Mizik plays 
twoubadou, a style with an even slower beat than compas. ``The hip-hop 
influence is fading out,'' Mathias says.

``We're trying our best to see if we can change the business and the quality 
of the music, see if it can bring us better opportunities in life,'' 
Alouidor says.

In the meantime, he is also getting a degree in accounting.

Evelyn McDonnell is the Herald's pop music critic

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