Touching Up Haiti's Roots

In a cockfighting-arena-turned-nightclub perched on a sheer cliff, high on a mountain overlooking Port-au-Prince, the eleven members of Kanpech crowd on-stage on a warm Sunday night in late March. Frederic "Fredo" Pierre Louis, the band's cherub-faced leader, sporting short braids and a blue print dashiki, throws his hands in the air as he begins the first verse of "Pa Kriye" ("Don't Cry"), a song that alludes to both the afterlife and exile. (It's also a highlight from the band's new album Pale Yo [Tell Them] issued recently on the Miami-based Coconut Grove Recording Company label.)

"Don't cry, we shall meet again," Fredo sings. "Don't scream, we shall meet again." His words are echoed by the childlike shouts of three young women wrapped in sarongs who gyrate behind him in unison, sounding like a helium-huffing gospel choir. A trio of percussionists marks a rapid-fire marching beat called nago, the tribal rhythm of Shango, the Vodou god of thunder. The incessant call of goat-skin drums is answered on each thump by a bouncing Afro-pop bass and skittering guitar, creating an undulating wall of sound pierced intermittently by the shriek of grating feedback from a temperamental P.A. system. As the song builds to its chorus, Fredo punctuates the melody with a rousing celebratory scream.

A sunken ring in front of the raised stage, originally designed for the dance of dueling roosters, now serves as a dance pit, painted blood red. The audience A mostly guys in their early twenties wearing T-shirts and baggy jeans A bounces frenetically to the music, arms outstretched toward the stage. When "Pa Kriye" ends, Fredo greets the small but vocal crowd. "Ayi bobo!" he shouts. The Creole phrase is the Vodou religion's "amen," but among Haitian musicians and their fans it can mean "welcome," "thank you," "hallelujah," "peace," or simply serve as a multipurpose "all right," much like the greeting shouted by countless rock and rollers in darkened concert halls across the globe.

The club, appropriately named Raw, has a gritty underground glamour worthy of its blood-sport past. It opened earlier this year and has become an important venue for bands such as Kanpech, bringing fresh influences to this historic Haitian music.

"I want to do something that everyone can enjoy but make it Haitian," explains Fredo, 33, during an interview in the bar of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince a few days after the concert. "We play more rock than other roots bands. In our music you can find blues, jazz, reggae, and soukous [a Congolese rumba played in Zaire], and the Haitian Vodou. People are crazy about reggae. They love rock music. Instead of playing [those genres] the way they're supposed to be played, though, we make a fusion."

And yet at the core of Kanpech's sound and style is racines, Haiti's roots music, which is also known as Afro-Haitian music or Vodou jazz. Whatever it's called, racines is the sound of revolution. Its driving rhythms are derived from the religious rites of African slaves, who in secret nocturnal ceremonies used drumbeats as a call to arms in the slave revolt that led to Haiti's independence in 1804. Haitian bands had been combining Vodou rhythms and jazz in their music as early as the Thirties, but that experimentation was squelched when Franaois "Papa Doc" Duvalier came to power in the late Fifties. Under the dictatorships of Papa Doc and, later, his son Jean-Claude, the merengue-like dance music compas and American-style rock were Haiti's dominant sounds.

The widespread cultural movement known now as racines emerged in the late Seventies when Haitian musicians began a search for spiritual enlightenment. With the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986, these Haitian roots bands became a populist force, and their concerts often had the feel of political rallies. The movement was spearheaded by the group Boukman Eksperyans, which incorporated the tough riffs of American funk and the rebellion and spirit of Jamaican reggae into their own Vodou rhythms. Boukman's lyrics openly criticized the de facto military regime that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 1991; its music was subsequently banned by the government, and the band members' lives were at risk whenever the group performed.

The relative calm in Haiti under the new democratic government of president Rene Preval has created a more hospitable climate for a proliferation of new racines bands. These groups adhere to the musical structure established by Boukman and bands such as Boukan Ginen and RAM. Their music is based on the interlocking percussive rhythms of Vodou ceremonies as well as the Carnival street processions called ra-ra. But while currently popular bands such as Kanpech are interested in indigenous rhythms, they are expanding the definition of Haitian music by incorporating styles like rap and dancehall reggae.

"Boukman is like the Rolling Stones," notes Jean Luc "Jah Lucky" Dessables, who hosts a popular reggae and roots show on the Port-au-Prince radio station Magik Stereo. "They're fathers of a movement. But Haitian kids are relating to racines with more international influences. They're open to American music, like rap, but always with a Haitian consciousness."

Kanpech first formed ten years ago as a rock band and recorded one album in that style, which comes as no surprise when you learn that Fredo was raised on American rock and roll. By the late Eighties, though, he had absorbed the influences of Bob Marley and Boukman Eksperyans, then set about retooling his group's sound. Kanpech's music now has the driving percussion and rhythm guitar typical of racines, but Fredo's heartfelt vocals have the melodic timbre and melismatic muscle of gospel-based soul music.

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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