Haitian compas from the days of vinyl
Haïti Direct, landmark compilation
Re-releasing old tunes has been all the rage over the last few years, but the compilation Haïti Direct is the first big project to focus on digging out the groups behind compas music. This zappy 135-minute digest comprises 30 songs dating from 1960 to 1978.
Each year, 26 July is celebrated as the anniversary of compas. Its historic character gives it an almost official edge, even though the date is more of a baptism than a birth certificate, since like many genres, compas didn’t spring up out of nowhere, but took shape slowly.
It is true that on that date in 1955 Haitian music did take a distinct turn, initiated by Jean-Baptiste Nemours, the head of a band performing at patron saint festivals round the country. He asked his musicians to adapt meringue, which was the latest trend on the other side of the island, now the Dominican Republic.
Up to that point, the local music scene comprised sounds like Mal élevé by the saxophonist Raul Guillaume, released a few years earlier on a 78 and blending regional influences, including from Cuba. Today’s Haitian scene is marked by a studiously maintained rivalry between the groups T-Vice and Carimi, especially at carnival time; back in the sixties, a similar artistic emulation was at work between Jean-Baptiste Nemours and the saxophonist Webert Sicot. The latter attempted to get one up on his adversary by launching his own variant in 1961 called “cadence rempa”, which he pursued up to the end of his career, illustrated on the album with the track Ambiance Cadence dating from 1979.
To get a grasp of Haitian artistic life during this period, it needs to be situated in context, as pointed out by DJ Hugo Mendez in the highly instructive booklet accompanying Haïti Direct, which he put together. The early days of compas coincided with François Duvalier’s accession to the presidency of the first black republic. He held on to the title for the rest of his life, hardening the line of his regime with his “Tonton Macoute” paramilitary force and their reign of terror. Nemours dedicated his song Ti Carole to one of them in 1966.
Artists were obliged to do a certain amount of kowtowing, aware that they had little choice. The only alternative was to take exile, mostly in the United States or Canada. Increasing numbers chose that path as the situation worsened in their homeland. One was Fred Paul, founder of the label Mini Records.
When he put on his producer’s cap, his main mission was to listen to Haitian music, at the time unobtainable in his host country. Tabou Combo’s international hit New York City made the label a reference in compas music in the mid seventies. The band, today led by Shoubou, is represented on Haïti Direct with a 1969 track (Ce pas) taken from their very first record, when they were part of a new generation of groups emerging on the local scene. The trend was called mini-jazz, partly because the bands comprised few musicians, and no doubt referring to the mini skirt that was so fashionable at the time. Modernity had started to take hold.
Society changed, with an atmosphere in the capital described by Dany Laferrière in his novel Dining with the Dictator, “In the Christian West, the sixties was the young people’s decade: young people had a mission to turn everything upside down and challenge it: love, death, money, motherhood, beauty, etc. And music was the main means of expression – everyone knows about Woodstock. The same kind of think happened in Port-au-Prince, but in the 1970s. Young musicians would jump up on stage, with an original style, and a whole new energy,” wrote the author, who was recently elected a member of the Académie Française.
To get a better idea, you only have to listen to the magically funky Pile ou Face by Les Loups Noirs, released in 1972 with a singer shouting at the top of his voice like James Brown. Or the eight-minute track Ti Li Lu Pu by Scorpio Universel, formed by guitarist Robert Martino, who defected from Les Difficiles du Petion-Ville and still often plays with his children, heading the group T-Vice, an emblematic figure of compas today.
Compilation Haïti Direct (Strut Records) 2014