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No birthday could be bitterer than the bicentennial of Haiti's independence last January 1. Soon after then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide flew the nation's flag to mark the occasion, thousands of demonstrators marched in front of the National Palace demanding his removal. Security forces responded with gunfire. It wasn't the place for the buoyant beat of konpa music. So the legendary Haitian dance band Tabou Combo, whose members have long lived in New York and Miami, called off a trip to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first black republic with seven gigs on the island. "Everything was basically canceled," says Tabou percussionist Yvon "Kapi" André.
At Haiti's carnival in February there was little call for konpa, either. As rebels encroached upon the capital and Aristide and his supporters fought back, the major dance bands -- which typically present new songs every year from massive sound systems mounted on elaborate floats -- stayed away. The crowds stayed away, too. Karele Chatel, owner of the North Miami travel agency Elka Travel, found herself in the unusual position of booking flights out of Haiti for residents eager to avoid the potential violence at carnival rather than the usual trips to Port-au-Prince for tourists and expatriates eager to join the festivities.
The peace since Aristide fled the country on February 29 has been fragile, yet Chatel says she has been working late every day this month booking flights for the celebration of the Haitian flag, which turns 201 years old on May 18. As many as 50,000 people are expected to celebrate Flag Day by attending the Sixth Annual Haitian Compas Festival www.compasfestival.net (compas is the French spelling of the Kreyol konpa) on May 15. "People are coming from everywhere," Chatel reports. "New York, Newark, Boston, and Canada." Nearly every major konpa band, including Tabou Combo, is scheduled to perform. But the event many believe is now the biggest Haitian music festival in the world doesn't take place in Haiti. As Tabou frontman Roger "Shoubou" Eugène observes, "We could say that Miami is the capital for konpa music."
Miami's Compas Festival is not simply a nostalgic tribute to the culture of the homeland; rather it is rapidly becoming the main stage for keeping Haiti's popular dance music culture alive. "People are looking for a place where they can come celebrate," says Rodney Noel, who founded the festival six years ago with Jean Michel Cerenord, his partner in Noel & Cecibon Productions.
Born under the repressive Duvalier regime of the Fifties, konpa has long offered an identity that transcends the nation's trenchant political strife. "It's unfortunate that the show is not in Haiti," concedes festival director Evrose Philias. But by presenting the best bands in one safe place, she points out, "We're all coming together to say, 'No matter what, we're Haitian.'"
Noel & Cecibon founded the festival, says Philias, in an effort to "extend the legacy of konpa." While adults can hear konpa bands play at nightclubs or private parties called bals throughout the scattered Haitian dyaspora, there was a "gap in the community" since children could not hear the music live. So each year a ten-member executive committee books the biggest acts of the moment. "We identify the who's who," she reveals. This year the festival also will branch out from konpa to feature zouk powerhouse Kassav from Martinique, who may be the most popular group in the French Antilles.
"We have a lot of the real players, the hard hitters, on one stage," Noel points out. Competition among the bands generates a buzz, he says. Who's wearing what costume? What time are they going to have? To make the buzz louder, Noel & Cecibon has staff throughout Haiti and the dyaspora. Street teams hand out flyers in Orlando, Boston, and Montreal. A billboard campaign advertises the event in Manhattan and Queens. Hot bands such as T-Vice and Carimi invite fans at shows as far away as Paris to follow them to the festival. "They bring their markets with them," says Philias.
A world music favorite for 35 years, Tabou Combo is used to playing for huge crowds from Belgium to Japan. But even seasoned frontman Shoubou was surprised by the 35,000 turnout when Tabou played the Compas Festival for the first time last year. "We've never seen a large audience of Haitians like that," he says.
With so many Haitians gathered in one place, could there be any spillover of political differences from the homeland? "Myself, I love my country, but I've never been into politics. Tabou Combo also [isn't political]," avers Shoubou by phone from New York City. "I don't think [the political situation] will change [the fact that] people are into music."
Kassav singer and songwriter Jocelyne Béroard hopes the music may help change the political situation. As a neighbor, she is keenly interested in Haitian politics. "We're learning a lot with Haiti," Béroard says over the phone from Martinique, an Afro-Caribbean island that is still a territory of France. "We're very sorry about what's happening. We have quite the same history [of slavery and colonialism]."
Music, Béroard believes, is a vehicle for conveying that history. Yet the message can't be dogmatic. "If I'm only talking about that, I don't think I'm going to be on the air," the singer notes. "I am doing it in another way. I'm not singing in French, because I've got another language that is Kreyol that gives us another kind of creativity. I'm very sorry that right now kids more and more are singing in French, writing things that don't have any flavor and don't represent our identity. I'm trying to put words that people have forgotten in our lyrics, so they ask, 'What is that?'"