By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
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First, a primer. Back in the mid-1950s, popular Haitian saxophonist and band leader Nemours Jean-Baptiste invented a new sound and coined the term "compas direct" to describe it. Compas (pronounced "kompa") is Spanish for "musical measure" and "direct" refers to its two-chord structure. Similar to merengue in this regard, compas was originally a fusion between the vodou drum-inspired Haitian percussion and the tipico styles of the Dominican Republic that pervaded the island's dance halls. Compas also features elements of bolero, guaracha, and mambo, resulting in a sound with driving Afro-Latin rhythms, a steady and propulsive bass line, bright and jangly electric guitars, and a complement of horns led by the alto sax. It became popular with young musicians in Port-au-Prince and around the country in the Sixties and has remained so through each succeeding generation. The international audience for compas is somewhat limited because the majority of the songs are sung in Creole (though some are in English). But the easy, tropical feel of the music lends itself well to a live format, with most groups such as D-Zine playing extended midtempo dance jams that make it easy to shuffle the feet, move the hips, and sip on rum runners well into the night.
Despite compas's original, alternating two-chord structure, the music of D-Zine will often start with this basic idea before jumping to new chords or even keys to produce a much more intricate sound. Pipo often sings complex lead melodies with a smooth deftness over a repeated chant from a harmonizing chorus, while the guitars weave a counter melody throughout the track. The bass is the driving force behind D-Zine; meanwhile, a drum kit and congas respond in a talking drum style as a four-man horn section adds punch and brightness.
One of the top bands on the Miami compas scene since first forming in 1998, D-Zine has gone through a number of personnel changes, most recently bringing in Pipo as its new lead singer because, according to D-Zine manager Rulx Jerôme, the other singers were "messing up." Born in Haiti and originally based in Montreal as a member of the band Passion, Pipo added his silky smooth vocals to the well-established D-Zine sound on the most recent release, Live 2003. But Montreal proved to be a long way from Miami.
"The other fans of Passion, they gave me a lot of hard time because the band was already established. So it was a kind of pressure there," says Pipo of his move here. "I have lots of fans there, I grew up there. Here I'm new, I don't know anybody here. But it was very exciting here because D-Zine has lots of fans." Though Passion was the big fish in Montreal's relatively small Haitian community, it was difficult for it to gain exposure in the international compas scene, which also includes New York, Paris, and French-Caribbean islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe. Reaching those markets has been far easier for Pipo and D-Zine in Miami, but it has also brought him in direct competition with other key compas players in the Magic City.
Which is another legacy of compas that started with Nemours: the rivalry between bands. Nemours, a regular performer at functions for Haitian dictator François Duvalier, developed a famous rivalry with saxophonist/band leader Webert Sicot (a former bandmate) for the right to be billed as the most successful group in Haiti. Over the past several years, the frontrunners for that same title in Miami have been D-Zine and another local group, Zenglen. But recent and unfortunate events overtook Zenglen's lead singer, Gracia Delva. "The singer was very, very popular and he had a problem with immigration and they sent him back to Haiti for five years," says Jerôme, who also owns the Gala Mixx Record Shop on 207 NE 82nd St. in Little Haiti.
Now D-Zine has to contend with Nu-Look, another Miami band started by two former members. "They have a problem here and there between them," laughs Jerôme, who points out that it's a friendly rivalry mostly generated by the fans. "I think it's more the fans than the musicians themselves. The fans are crazy. When they like something they go crazy for it. They talk and they start creating problems within the bands themselves, but the musicians are fine." Indeed a visit to the message board on Internet fan sites like konpadirek.com reveals a zeal for favorite bands that's similar to hardcore fans of football or soccer teams.
Of course, this adds a bit of pressure for D-Zine and the other bands to perform at their best during the festival. "This year it's gonna be a big challenge," says Pipo. "People are gonna come to see what D-Zine is gonna give, what the other local bands are gonna give."