By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
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By Falyn Freyman
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In the white-tile living room of his sparsely furnished two-story house in Kendall, Roberto Martino is watching a video of his band, T-Vice, playing at Carnival 2000 last March in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A mass of black bodies clad in yellow T-Vice T-shirts moves from left to right across the big screen, jumping up and down to the throbbing compas beat. Roberto and his younger brother, Reynaldo, ride through the crowd on a 40-foot-long float filled with 300 of their most faithful fans. While Reynaldo remains anchored at the keyboards, Roberto clambers atop the speakers, exhorting the crowd to raise their hands in the air. The singer does not see a cable strewn across the float until it hits him, knocking him off the massive speakers and flat onto his back on the platform where the band plays below. Roberto leaps up again immediately, without missing a note. "I was so caught up in the moment," the resilient star laughs, "I didn't feel anything."
T-Vice went on to win the prestigious Mayor's Prize for the best song at Carnival. After a year marred by violent attacks against the group and accusations of racism against Roberto, the victory at Haiti's annual musical competition proved the brother act's ability to definitively bounce back. T-Vice's tribulations and eventual triumph also demonstrate the new role race plays in the increasingly international stage of Haitian compas.
At 24 years of age, Roberto Martino is a handsome young man with ink-black hair that falls in gentle waves over his dark eyes and round, olive-complexioned face. He might easily be mistaken for a white-skinned Colombian or Cuban when he works on filling out his broad shoulders late at night in Porky's gym, deep in Miami's southwestern suburbs. Martino bought his Kendall house three years ago, when he needed a central stopover during constant tours from Haiti through the United States, Canada, and Europe. "We stay in Miami for transit," the band leader explains, referring to himself, his 21-year-old brother, background vocalist James Cardozo, alternate bass players Gerald Kebreau and Eric Emile, as well as the Martino brothers' mother, Jessie Al-Khalal, who serves as the group's manager, "and on weekends we travel to a different state or country."
Like many other popular Haitian bands, T-Vice plots its touring schedule according to the migratory path of the Haitian immigrants known as dyasporas. A Kreyol variation on the word "diaspora," which comes from the Latin root meaning a scattering of seeds, the term is used somewhat mockingly by Haitians on the island to describe those who live in the far-flung exile communities of Miami, New York, Boston, Montreal, and Paris. "You can tell the dyasporasby their language," Roberto explains. "They speak English. They always have lots of jewelry on them. They have American money and they always party a lot. Haitian natives don't go out as much."
Thousands of these immigrants come back home to Haiti during three seasons each year: for the feast-day parties in late summer, for the Christmas holidays, and for Carnival in the spring. Their return, flush with dollars, draws back not only the bands that have left the island in search of more lucrative contracts but also the island public, which in large part stays away from clubs and concerts the rest of the year. "The people living in Haiti," says Martino, "once they know the dyasporas are going to come, they come out, too."
Despite his fluid English, affluent appearance, and Kendall residence, Martino resists the suggestion that he might be a dyasporahimself. "No, no," he protests, "I don't plan on living here; I'm just on tour. I'm Haitian. I was born in Haiti. I was raised in the 'hood in Haiti."
The tony homes in Petionville, Martino's "'hood" back on the island, are a world of luxury apart from the troubled streets where most of his countrymen reside, however. It was in these well-heeled households that compas music got its start in the late 1960s as the frivolous expression of middle-class concerns -- a sharp contrast to the violence suffered throughout the nation at the time under dictator François Duvalier.
Although early compas bands studiously tried to avoid politics, musical competition still could turn ugly. Roberto's father, respected guitarist and compas pioneer Robert Martino, played for Scorpio, whose rivalry with D.P. Express ushered in an era known as kompa vyolans, the time of compas violence.
In the early 1980s, the elder Martino moved to Miami, where he formed Top Vice, borrowing for his band's name the notoriety bestowed on his new city by the television show Miami Vice. Martino's two sons visited him in South Florida for a month at a time during the summers of the 1980s and early 1990s, sitting in sometimes at his gigs with a tiny guitar and keyboards. In 1992, while just sixteen and thirteen years old, the brothers formed their own Petionville neighborhood band and performed at their first Carnival. Fans of their father in the crowd thought the boys looked like a miniature version of Top Vice and gave them the name "T-Vice" because the word ti in Kreyol means "little."