Touching Up Haiti's Roots

It was Boukman frontman Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun, Jr., who introduced Kanpech's music to Peter Wetherbee, general manager of Coconut Grove Recording Company. Wetherbee had already become interested in Vodou music and religion through his friendship with Lolo, and had been thinking about making some field recordings of actual Vodou ceremonies to release on the label. When he listened to a demo tape of Kanpech's music that Lolo had given him, Wetherbee decided that recording an album with the group would be "a step in that direction." Last October he flew to Haiti with a cache of equipment that included a Fender amplifier, microphones, and several distortion boxes. He was seeking a cleaner, more organic sound than that of other CDs recorded in Haiti, which tend to rely heavily on synthesizers and drum machines.

"There's a cheesiness I wanted to avoid," says Wetherbee. "I wanted the sound quality to be like a rock or pop record. We used a live drum kit, and we recorded at an unusually slow tape speed to add warmth to the production."

The result, Pale Yo, is an energetic summation of Kanpech's racines style, dominated by the sound of human hands beating on goat-skin drums. The title track is based on a Vodou rhythm called raboday and moves at the clip of a rapid heartbeat, with bass and guitar following the staccato rhythms of drums and voices. "Men N Rive" ("Here We've Come") is a hard-hitting rock tune that piles fuzzy guitar riffs atop a lighter Carnival-esque rhythm. "Ayi Bobo" is a spiritual anthem that makes a plea for popular resistance. The album closes with "Tchovi-o," an emotional folktale performed by the group a cappella.

The lyrics, all written by Fredo, tell stories of the struggle for social justice in Haiti. Despite the jubilant beat of most of the songs, the stories told are often sad: "Etwanje" ("Stranger") begins, "We're living in a country which is our own/But that we have come to despise/So much we have suffered in it." Other songs, such as "Pale Yo," convey guarded messages of hope. But although Fredo is obviously following the path of activist musicians such as Boukman's Lolo, he frowns when Kanpech's music is referred to as political.

"Because we talk about the misery of the Haitian people, people say we are a political band, but we're not really," Fredo insists, emphasizing that his band's music conveys the celebration and tragedy that is part of everyday life in Haiti. "Music is revolution, but at the same time it should be evolution. If you get the message to the people, there will be change."

Kanpech performs Saturday, May 18, at the Unity Party, Coconut Grove Convention Center, 2700 S Bayshore Dr, Coconut Grove; 579-3310. Showtime is 10:00 p.m. Tickets are $21 in advance, $25 at the door. The band also performs Sunday, May 19, at the Roots & Culture Festival '96, on North Miami Avenue from 54th to 62nd streets in Little Haiti. The festival runs from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Admission is free. For more information about either event, call 751-4222.

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