Haitians remember forgotten musicians
South Florida Haitians will honor their musical pioneers during a concert at the annual Independence Day celebrations.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
January 1, 2006
Long before Wyclef fused hard-core Haitian beats with hip hop, or Grammy-nominated rockers Boukman Eksperyan blended Vodou, reggae and rock 'n' roll, one man set the stage by marrying Latin rhythms and African drums.
Still, Nemours Jean-Baptiste, the man behind Haiti's most well-known musical sound, konpa direk, died like so many other Haitian artists -- poor.
Such is the story of many of Haiti's musical pioneers, a dozen of whom will be honored during the annual Haitian Independence Day concert on New Year's Day at downtown Miami's James L. Knight Center.
For Haitians, the New Year's
Day gathering marks the 202nd anniversary that former-slave-turned-revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti free from French rule, making it the first free black nation.
Although true freedom continues to evade Haiti, this new year Haitians will momentarily set aside their political and class differences and pay tribute to the pioneers who helped put Haiti on the cultural map of the Caribbean.
''All of these artists have a message of solidarity,'' said Farah Juste, a local Haitian-American business owner and singer who has organized the New Year's Day Haitian Independence Day Concert for the past 17 years.
In the spirit of that message, Juste will team up with Carl Fombrun, a well-known radio and television personality in Miami's Haitian community. Together the two -- who don't always see eye-to-eye politically, but share a mutual love for Haitian culture -- will guide audience members through more than 50 years of the music that has weathered political storms and
kept Haitians connected, no matter where they live.
To keep the audience on its feet, Juste has assembled several contemporary Haitian performers who will pay homage to the artists by singing the songs that helped make them famous in Haiti, and in exile communities in Paris, Havana and Montreal. Among the performers: Kid Coupé who will pay tribute to his father, Coupé Cloué, a konpa singer whose rhythmic approach to the beat set him apart from his contemporaries. Roger Colas Jr. will pay homage to his father, Rogers Colas, one of Haiti's most romantic singers who died in a car accident on a Port-au-Prince road on his way home from a performance. His body was finally picked up hours later, but only after another musician -- Ansy Derose, another honoree -- intervened. ''We sing their songs, we go to their dances but Haitian artists don't get what they deserve,'' said Marc Lubin, a local songwriter and follower of Haitian music. ``This is one of the
good things Farah Juste is doing, to give them what they deserve even after they've died. They still live within their fans.''
Emerante de Pradines Morse, a pioneer in the Haitian folklore movement in the 1940s and 1950s, said Haitians in the diaspora have always been a life line for long-struggling Haitian artists and it's good to see them still connected. Her own musical contributions will be briefly highlighted during the two-hour show.
''It's encouraging to see we are appreciated outside of Haiti,'' said de Pradines, who transported Haitian folklore out of the villages and onto the world stage, and into the Ivy League classrooms at U.S. universities where she lectured.
''It was such a struggle for you to get out at a certain point as an artist,'' said de Pradines, 84, who lives in Washington, D.C. ``When I began, it was in the '40s, and I was very young then and as a folklorist, very daring. I thought if you didn't get it out of the villages, nobody would know about it.
De Pradines, a dancer as well as a singer, has passed her musical talent on to her son, Richard Morse. Morse runs the famed Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, and his Haitian rock band RAM will celebrate its 15-year anniversary on New Year's Eve in the hotel lobby.
Fombrun said that while two hours isn't enough to showcase all who have made a cultural difference in Haiti, the stories behind those who will be honored is the story of Haiti itself: trial and tribulation, friendship and rivalry.
It is also the story of music, regardless of the genre or country. The John Lennon and Paul McCartney of Haitian music, Nemours Jean-Baptiste and Webert Sicot, began their careers as band mates, but soon parted ways. They went on to develop similar styles of music, but it was Jean-Baptiste's konpa that outlived Sicot's cadence rampa.
Fifty years later, konpa, sometimes called the Haitian merengue, remains the most popular form of Haitian mu
sic, especially here in South Florida where weekly gatherings by local bands draw sold-out dancing crowds. Jean-Baptiste and Sicot, the two men who could not co-exist, ended up as friends, dying within months of each other in 1985.
''I was with them in the '70s when they came and played at a private party at my nephew's house,'' recalled Fombrun. Fombrun has known all of the honorees, with the exception of one: Eyma Achille, a pioneering songstress in the Haitian evangelical movement who currently lives in a South Florida nursing home.
''Haitian music has moved forward, but we never passed that glass ceiling and we are still stuck there,'' he said.
3 posts • Page 1 of 1