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Got Milk?

From their Kendall garage to the world, Reynaldo and Roberto Martino ride the tide of the Haitian diaspora
Steve Satterwhite

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 dyasporas by 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 dyaspora himself. "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."

By 1997 the "little vice" won its first Carnival. Now mature, they let it be known that the "T" stands for "thunder." "When we play," Roberto boasts, "we put lots of fire in the place."

The trials of the past year made it seem for a while as though T-Vice itself might get burned. Disputes about club dates with the band Sweet Mickey set off a rivalry more intense than those that marked the days of the Martino brothers' father. Last summer Sweet Mickey's Michel Marcelly appeared on Haitian television alleging that Roberto remarked, in reference to black fans at one of his concerts, "Gen trop mouche nan lèt la" ("There's too many flies in the milk"). In the November/December 1999 issue of Kompa magazine, dedicated to the controversy, Roberto counters the accusation by saying he heard Martelly make the racist statement at a Sweet Mickey concert in 1991. Martelly, like Roberto, has very light skin. In the complex Haitian system for racial categorization, Roberto is considered a "bon mulat" -- a true mulatto -- a mixed-race man with light skin and the wavy hair attributed to European descent. Martelly is considered a "mulat griye," a man with light skin and the tight curls associated with African descent.

Mulats ruled Haiti for 150 years, from the end of the revolution that brought independence in 1804 until the election of Duvalier, who justified his brutal regime with a fascist mythology of blackness (noirisme). Just as recourse to race has served as a means to political power in Haiti, Roberto believes Martelly attempted to use race to shore up Sweet Mickey's commercial power. The accused musician contends that Martelly cried "racism" when he saw his band "losing the market" to T-Vice, whose record-breaking sales of 85,000 copies of the 1998 album Give Me T-Vice dwarfed the usual Haitian run of 10,000 copies. No Sweet Mickey recording has ever come close.

Whether Roberto or Martelly ever actually made any remark about "flies in the milk" matters less than the fact that in the fractious world of Haitian music, such a statement could be made. African-American music writer Greg Tate played on the U.S. version of the same racist adage in 1992 with his book on the growing power of hip-hop in the United States, Flyboy in the Buttermilk. Tate comments on the capacity of young African-American men, as part of a racial minority, to dominate popular culture with musical messages that attack the racism of the larger society in which they live. By contrast as mulat stars in Haiti, both Roberto and Martelly look like the light-skinned minority that has long dominated the nation. No matter what they might privately say or think, the color of their skin sets them apart from the majority of their fans, and sends the visual message that mulats dominate popular culture in Haiti as well.

Ironically the pallor that has been so troublesome of late for the Martino brothers in Haitian popular music might aid the band in its effort to, as Roberto says, "make compas international." T-Vice draws heavily on the African-influenced genres of hip-hop and reggae to give compas a crossover sound, borrowing choruses and riffs from hits such as TLC's "No Scrubs" and Beenie Man's "Who Am I?" The band attempts to reach Latin audiences as well, with covers of Selena's reggae-cumbia "Bidi Bidi Bum Bum" and Elvis Crespo's omnipresent merengue "Suavemente." This eclectic sampling of other popular styles smacks of the diabolical layering of musical influences written into Ricky Martin's 1999 monster hit "Livin' la Vida Loca." T-Vice's upcoming album features a compas mélange of English-language material written to appeal to an audience outside the Haitian diaspora. Channeling the power of black popular culture from across the Americas, Roberto Martino might have just the right face to effect the Ricky Martinization of Haitian music.


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