What is wrong with Kompa Music?
By Max Zamor
Last week I turned on the radio station to listen to some “old school” Haitian music. (Nothing is wrong with old school music. Sometimes it’s essential to look back in order to move forward) Mad I was when I heard the speaker begging Haitian musicians to treat radio personalities with respect. This would have been funny if it wasn’t so serious. Lately there have been some debates on the radio and in Haitian barber shops about the disarray that exists within the Konpa industry and the music’s lack of popularity on the international scene. These debates pit promoters against musicians and musicians against the public. But the reality reveals that there is so much blame to go around and each group should bite its share.
First thing, respect is not begged for; it is earned. All the players need to delve into a deep self-examination to get to the root of the problem. I don’t mean to go see a shrink or a “mambo”. At the risk of not sounding original, I’ll say that everyone should get together and find a solution. One begs the question: Who will benefit in the end? This writing will not pretend to find the answer but I will try to bring to light what I have not heard from anyone in this whole debate. The blame game will not work anymore. Only honest talk from civilized people will make a lasting difference. So, send the kids to bed, close the door, and let the adults have a serious talk about bringing Haitian Konpa music from the doldrums.
It wasn’t yesterday that Konpa music started to be a struggling industry. It has always strained under the weight of mismanagement and years of misguided infightings to make a breakthrough. We all know the stories of rampant unprofessionalism and flocks of underpaid musicians. How many Haitian musicians of yesteryear lived a comfortable life? I’d be surprised to find if any compensation or royalty is given to their families in the name of their legacy. There is a wealth of their beautiful music and innovations left behind for whomever to pilfer. I never heard of any Haitian organization fighting for the benefit of Haitian musicians and the promotion of Haitian Konpa music. How many Haitian musicians belong to a union? Is there a Haitian musician union in Haiti? If there is, what has been their accomplishment? I’ve asked around and no one seems to know. But the times are different now. No longer is Konpa music played just for the pure love of it because, let’s face it; money has taken a front seat to enjoyment. The all mighty dollar rules (or is it Gourde?). Yes, there are those who live and breathe Konpa every day. The world is peppered with Konpa fans who fight to keep this music alive and in the forefront: We must thank them for their enthusiasm. But is theirs a feeble effort that pales in comparison with what it will take to bring Konpa the recognition it deserves?
This heritage from Nemours Jean-Baptiste, transformed by Les Shleu Shleu, Tabou Combo, Les Fantaisistes de Carrefour and other mini Jazz bands in the late 1960’s, helped shape the brand of popular Haitian music we listen to today. This music’s reputation fueled by the fierce competition between Nemours and Sicot in the 1960s’ has received wide acceptance in Haitian culture and others. But is it enough? How much more could be done to advance its evolution in view of the musicians’ technical proficiencies and the crowds following these bands? Is it true that Konpa is in decline? If it is, what are the reasons?
I am no spring chicken, but the memory is still fresh in my mind when young troubadours played music, roamed the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince serenading young ladies, hoping to score the desired one. Boleros were a must. They were relatively simple to play and sing but more importantly they oozed musical hooks. Young ladies were more impressed by a romantic melody, languorously sung. Young musicians knew that, and they played to their delight. During a “bal” (party) most young men prayed for a bolero to be played in order to chance a cheap squeeze. During those parties “Twoubadou” style music was the appropriate appetizer, Konpa was the main course and Boleros were the deserts.
If Nemours Jean-Baptiste did not invent Konpa Direk, have you ever thought of what brand of popular music Haitians would claim as their own today? Would any effort be put in developing our “root music” to accommodate the listening of the modern Haitian music lovers? Would we adopt another genre of music? That would not be very original. The last drastic innovation of Konpa was the transition to mini jazz as stated above.
Since then, structural changes made to Konpa were minor and often for the sole benefit of individual musicians but not the music: The guitar solos are a bit more sophisticated, the wind line is more prevalent and stronger, the songs are longer and, yes, the personalities are more arrogant. Haitians are imaginative and proud of their creations. Haitian musicians are big on praising what Nemours left them, but what is being done to preserve it? Konpa music is over fifty years old and its erosion would be a bitter pill to swallow. So many in the public are turned off by the antics of the industry caretakers that it seems the preservation, if not the advancement of Konpa Direk is rarely part of the conversation. Konpa bands borrow from other musical genres in order to season it and provide a veiled differentiation between their grooves. The fact is they all begin to sound alike after a while. For their own survival, ($$) they have to do something to ring in young Haitians who are enticed more and more by Hip Hop and Rap. But why does Konpa need to be seasoned with other genre of music? Each era sees a different kind of seasoning. Haitian musicians dabbled with Rock in the seventies, inserting it into Konpa, especially with guitar solos: Robert Martino, the prolific guitarist of Les Difficiles and Les Gypsies de Pétionville is one who was at ease and successful with this kind of experimentation. Though these kinds of musical arrangements were enjoyable, for the most part some musicians experimented with other genres only to display their competence at playing a particular instrument. It earned them bragging rights. If they were not making a lot of money, there was not a lot more to play for. Konpa is a unique kind of music that stands well enough on its own without having to change it beyond the intro. Straying into other musical genres within the body of the music only creates a temporary modification and cannot make a lasting impression on the essence of Konpa and thus, a difference in its growth. Some even use that as a way to set up an incoming hook. This tactic is overused, and predictable. In the eighties, Reggae became part of Haitian musical repertoire. Almost every Haitian band was playing Reggae, never mind that the public soon was bored with it and could not wait to hear the next pure, unadulterated Konpa song. Besides, one could not dance Reggae while “kampé lan de karo”. In the nineties and up to now, to a certain extent, Rap is probably the most accepted of these borrowed genres in Haitian’s musical taste. In fact there are Haitian bands that only play this genre. Time only will tell if those, too, will have a lasting effect on Konpa. Now Jazz is making inroads in Konpa music. This is evident in albums released by Eddy Brisseaux, Strings and others.
May be this is intended to be part of a grand design that is taking many generations to mutate. Or it is what constitutes part of the whole fabric of Haitian musical culture shifting right in front of us. Konpa is relatively a young genre of music. Unfortunately, unlike our roots music, there are many other kinds of music that Konpa is competing against. Still, Konpa has the potential to reach that level of popularity all Haitians desire. In the meantime, variety may be what’s needed to nurture its survival while going through this growth process.
Where is that growth taking us? What should be the end game? How can this metamorphosis be controlled or at least influenced by everyone’s actions to arrive at a desired result? Judging by the radio announcer mentioned in the beginning of this conversation, a good job is not being performed at this juncture.
In my last writing on this subject we strolled down memory lane, visited some anecdotes that contributed to the evolution of Konpa and I raised some questions about the attitudes of the movers and shakers in the Konpa world. These attitudes unfortunately reflect the social conditions that permeate Haitian life, notably the lack of organization and respect for each other. I also pointed out that the structure of the music may be one reason encumbering its growth. Konpa is also fraught by the insertion of other musical genres; sometimes that is done with skill, but other times it makes you cringe. Nothing is wrong with those kinds of experimentations if they are not made as a way to escape from writing great Konpa.
There are other hindrances to the growth of Konpa. How Konpa music is constructed is as much a part of its evolution, whether other cultures embrace it, as how it is promoted. Konpa music as it is played today is too long for my taste and many others’. So too it can be for international music lovers. At home parties and nightclubs, I’ve seen couples return to their seats while a song is still being played. One can get tired of dancing just one song for twenty minutes. It’s time to understand that Konpa is not just to have pseudo sex (sometimes explicit) on the dance floor. Konpa, when played well can be universal. It can also be great fun to dance it while twirling around in frenzy steps just as in Salsa or Hip Hop, the way that young people do. And it can be languorous and romantic as well. Even the new street dances that the young “twenty somethings” enjoy, like Break Dance and Crump, can be danced with Konpa; and why not Ballroom? Those are primarily show dances and the innovation parameters are endless when Konpa is thrown in the mix. Why does it have to always be the music of festivals and nightclub dances? Yet Konpa music is loaded with so many unnecessary solos, “shout outs”, slogans and shameless commercials that in the end all one wants to hear is the intro and a few hooks. The rest is meaningless for an audience more sophisticated and interested in enjoying a well written piece of art instead of being tortured with endless self promotions. In this case the old cliché “less is more” rings so true. It would bode well for Konpa musicians take some time and listen anew to Nemours Jean Baptiste’s music with a different ear. There is much there to learn about beauty, innovation and simplicity.
I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s been a long time since I have not heard imaginative lyrics sung in Konpa music. In reality, Nemours Jean Baptiste did not always put much importance to lyrics. Konpa has always been about melody and rhythm. It was never like the poetry of Gerard Dupervil and Roger Colas. Haitians have grown to accept that. But good lyrics must also be part of the equation. I admit there are some in the industry currently who try to be creative with their lyrics. I cite Nu Look’s “Loving You” or Misty Jean’s “Li Pa Twó Ta” as examples of songs with lyrics that, along with the melodies, can move a listener. For the most part these types of songs are the exceptions. But in general the public is tired of lyrics that are no more than threats, touts of one’s supposed superiority, name callings and insults. This is destructive behavior. True, some of this nonsense is part of the Nemours/Sicot legacy. But their lyrics were innovative and even at times comical. How can one takes seriously “Tèt kan-na pa gen zépon”. It was not too imaginative but at least it was fun, not threatening. Many Konpa musicians follow their line and carry on that legacy to a different level. Some call that “polémique” but it has not contributed to any advancement of the music. Many Konpa musicians do not get it. As we all know some have even taken that “polémique” to heights that would make Nemours Jean Baptiste and Weber Sicot turn in their grave. Current musicians spend too much time wasted in pumping their machoism and leaving a legacy of disdain for younger ones.
And the cycle continues. In fact some young Haitian music lovers I talked to dismiss the whole thing as ridiculous. They can’t understand it because it doesn’t make sense and it hurts the industry. They are turned off by those antics. They stay away and put their money in Hip Hop, Rap and other genres. The result is loss of revenue for Konpa, instability in Konpa bands, incompetence in their management, laziness of musicians and a suffering public. No one can be convinced this is how to grow the music and widen its popularity.
One of the most common reasons I hear that contributes to Konpa’s lack of international acceptance is the Creole language. Some Haitian musicians have no problem singing in English, (heavy French/Creole accent notwithstanding) hoping to hoard, if not a sizeable portion of the Anglo audience, but the millions of Haitian Americans children already enticed by the other genres of music. The intent is laudable but the shortsightedness of this logic is glaring. The Anglo audience is a tough, if not impossible sell, for the reasons cited above. Even if the structure of Konpa was tweaked to accommodate their taste, there are other issues within the industry that would need some serious attention before attempting to capture that audience. As for Haitian American kids, they are familiar with the music, because they hear it when their parents play it at home. That would indicate they are more receptive than others of English lyrics in Konpa, if they’re well written and performed. However, these kids are still a product of the American music scene. Some Konpa songs might make their way in their ipods or .mp3 players but the fundamentals of the industry (or lack thereof) can prove to be damaging in capturing that audience also. English lyrics in Konpa music would not therefore be a panacea. Then there are the purists who believe that English lyrics in Konpa are sacrilegious. To them, it’s a matter of pride and English in Konpa music is not a good fit. Konpa music belongs to Haitians therefore it should only have Creole lyrics. It’s enough for them to tolerate French lyrics. Even in music, their patriotism is still strong.
The rest of the world enjoys Salsa, Bossa Nova and music from other cultures without suffering from this language deficit. I can see how easy it would be for some to inject this kind of prejudice in Konpa music in order to disrupt its evolution even more. Music is music; if played beautifully and managed sensibly, the audience will come and follow, no matter what the language is.
Nothing is more sensual than the groove of Konpa music in a dimly lit dance room. Its languorous beat makes your body want to glide nonchalantly across the floor. I am Haitian; admittedly I am partial, but once given a chance other cultures have also succumbed to its lilting rhythm. In addition, I understand why Haitian brothers enjoy going to Konpa festivals and soirées: When Konpa is mixed with the intoxicating beauty of Haitian women, you have a deadly cocktail. With so much to offer in beauty and entertainment, it is a puzzle to many that Konpa music simmers only in this little corner of the world, seemingly on a treadmill, going nowhere, relatively lost in the assortment of rich Caribbean sounds, struggling to earn its keep and attention for international notoriety.
As much as we rave about Konpa’s uniqueness and potentials, it has always struggled. It has done so since its inception to claim legitimacy and acceptance in the international music arena. In search of this authenticity, many great Haitian musicians in the 1940’s and 1950’s played music by often borrowing from other nontraditional Haitian sounds like Latin, Jazz, even Waltz: Have you heard Raoul Guillaume’s “Valse aux Etoiles”? The European and North American musical influences were strong. These sounds were at times peppered with heavy drum beats as a way to give them a distinctive Haitian touch. Through this intrusion, native Haitian music remained varied. What we call now “Roots Music” (Musique Racine) was played and listened to everyday on the radio and danced at parties: Petro, Yanvalou, Congo, Rara and many others were some of the rhythms in Haitian common repertoire. These were brought with us from Africa and arguably, often associated with voodouism. This stigma, to a lesser extent, still remains to this day. Hence there was not a single popular modern commercial music that Haitians could commonly cling to and claim as theirs until Konpa was invented. That lack of musical identity was not necessarily a bad thing. It gave rise to skilled, competent musicians and injected variety into the Haitian music scene. No genre was off limit. When you go to a party or listen to a “plaque” one could enjoy a boléro of La Sonora Matancera as well as a tight Petro by Les Jazz des Jeunes and everything else in between.
In those days, the music was the star. The musicians’ loose personalities were secondary. The important thing was musical literacy: Can a musician read and play a written song at first sight? If so, then he was anointed as a competent musician and earned respect and bragging rights from his peers and the public. This is one instance where competence was sure to reward musicians in their social standings. Most musicians of that time made use of the written music to play. Nemours Jean Baptiste and his band were no exceptions. Even in the waning years of their careers, during the last mutation of Konpa, those musicians were still hanging on to that legacy. Besides, the ability to read music is a learned skill; there was no reason to abandon it. Sadly it did not stay that way. During the unofficial passing of the torch it was discovered that Konpa was easy enough to play; when it comes to Konpa, there was no longer a need for the written notes.
That, in part, contributed to an explosion of musical artists and bands. In the 1960’s Konpa music saw the birth of Mini Jazz and a steady rise in the number of musicians who lacked the ability to read music. They played by ear and relied upon their memory. It became easy to put a song together, play Konpa and make a living without being a complete, well rounded musician. A lot of talented individuals (I can’t call them musicians) came on the scene to enrich Konpa’s melodic legacy but, also perhaps, damaged its legitimacy. Because they lack the skills that could earn them musical respect, they relied upon their personalities and their “bad boy” images to further, not the music, but their own popularity. This hypocrisy by those who depend on this industry to make a living continues to this day. Thus Konpa lethargically suffers.
This is not an indictment of all Konpa musicians. It would be wrong and inaccurate to place all Konpa musicians in this bowl of guilt. There are exceptions in every situation; this one included. I recognize there are a number of Konpa musicians who have paid their dues and continue to do so. They are to be commended because they are swimming against a strong tide. The “Dadou Pasquets” of this generation are not easy to come by. We know who they are; their careers are long, often they remain with only one band and their respect for the art is legendary. But one must also admit that there is an army of musical talents out there, forming a crowd of incompetence weighing on Konpa’s advance. Musicians are not all at fault: It’s not wrong to name the promoters, impresarios, nightclub owners, commercial sponsors, even the paying public. All have a hand in making Konpa what it is today.
The heritage of Konpa is one that all Haitians should be proud of. Let’s not make of it what happened to our fortresses and castles. We all benefit from this inheritance, if not in kinds, but in the enrichment of our culture. Not only is it a legacy worth defending but one we should all get a hand in preserving and growing.
To shake up a system or a process, to make it fresh and original, often the conventional wisdom is to go for broke; uproot it from its familiar setting in order to bring it on the brink of apparent chaos. Then when it’s rebuilt, after following a well organized plan, it can be molded into the envisioned masterpiece. This is what Konpa music needs; though tweaking it should be less dramatic and much more fundamental.
To that end, I submit that Konpa music, along with other art disciplines, be made an elective in Haïtian school curriculum at a very early age. I don’t mean children should be encumbered with electric guitars and sets of drums to play away. That would bring unwanted chaos. I can see parents pulling their kids out of these programs in protest because now all the kids would want to do is play music. Forget about homework or studies. Forget about chores. Passion has taken over. After all, this is music; Haitians do not negotiate their musical love. However, injected with a minimum of competence and their ego protruding loudly, these students would be hard to control if all they want to do is play music.
The teaching should be systematic according to prescribed sets of rules laid by the Department of Education, just as it is for mathematics and languages. Students enrolled in these classes should be taught the basics of music and learn how to sight read. Some may eventually move on to be professional musicians and bring pride to their parents and teachers in Haiti and elsewhere, others may not. The primary agenda is not to create musicians but to make music a part of their overall, well rounded education. Yes, they should be encouraged to play the instruments of their choice at an appropriate age if the interest is shown, but music history and appreciation should also be an important part of that teaching. And when music is taught, Konpa should be as much a part of the program as Opera and Calypso, Cumbia and Beethoven, Rap and Twoubadou. Many Haitian parents don’t think highly of musicians, much less Konpa musicians (the reasons why are beyond the scope of this essay). But with the support of the schools and their parents, these students would work to uplift the image of Konpa musicians in Haitian society. This would ensure a pool of well formed, disciplined musicians respectful of Konpa music, armed with a sense of ownership, thus less likely to damage its reputation and more apt to innovate its structure.
What program is built and how it is taught should result from consultations between educators and the industry’s respected professionals. I know it will not be easy to rally the support of those who most have a stake in this effort. Forgive me, but Haitians musicians don’t have a positive track record in that regard, for the most part they have shown nothing but contempt for the public. But I believe there are competent Haitian musicians who would gladly lend their expertise if a good program is presented. If they are engaged, their involvement should be to participate in the design of a curriculum in conjunction with current established programs. In addition, to complement conventional music teachings, musicians should be recruited to give lectures, demonstrations and presentations at Konpa music camps, Konpa festivals and other activities. These would serve to enhance the student’s experience away from the classroom. There are many Konpa public gatherings throughout America alone and their only purpose is to pack as many warm bodies as possible in an arena or outdoor park and make as much money as possible for the organizers from ticket and greasy food sales. Konpa promoters and others involved have not encouraged the promotion of young talents where Haitian music students, and even possibly other nationalities, can learn about Konpa music, its history, its personalities, its structure and its evolution.
In Florida, Hip Hop artists descend on South Beach the last weekend of May for their annual convention. It’s an orgy of music, video presentations, lectures, conferences, symposiums and expositions from the industry’s top artists and other professionals involved in making this genre the force it is around the world. For those who have been there, it’s more than the parading of half naked women and men showing off their very personal selves. Deep in the bowels of the Delano Hotel, the Miami Beach Convention Center and other venues, business men and women, artists, technicians, all who make their living from this kind of music, converge to plan the future of this most important industry for the American audience. During this festival, there are award ceremonies, scholarships are granted to students interested in the music industry, recognition presentations and yes, even fashion shows. There is no wheel to be reinvented here: Others have shown us how it’s done. Konpa music is a potentially viable industry for Haitian artists and entrepreneurs. It can also reflect a positive image of our country; if not nurtured, it will wilt.
The definition of industry, in the case of Haitian Konpa music, is quite loose. We all know the general state of Haitian music: Struggling artists, lack of musical innovation, dwindling audience, personal attacks and many more infections. Now, the coordination required to advance this beautiful music is nonexistent. To overcome this serious flaw, there should be the creation of a nonprofit organization dedicated to raise the quality and awareness of Haitian music throughout the world. This organization should also serve as a watchdog over rogue musicians and others working within the industry who do damage to it. Within this organization there should be different branches to support specific genres of Haitian music. For example: A branch of that organization should only oversee the development of Konpa music. To accomplish this, it should have many important tasks including:
· Act as a consultancy authority to the Department of Education and other educational institutions when it comes to matters concerning Konpa music teaching.
· Serve as a clearinghouse for Haitian Konpa music.
· Create and manage a Konpa Music Hall of Fame.
· Be the sole legitimate organization to bestow musical honors annually upon Konpa bands and artists.
· Support other minor Konpa music competitions throughout Haiti and elsewhere.
· Engage in the promotion of Konpa music in conjunction with qualified Government and private entities.
This list is not exhaustive but is still a tall order. To create such an organization, serious and highly competent individuals should be invited to participate. They don’t all have to be musicians; they should all be without reproach, professionally and personally.
I make reference to the Grammy’s in the United States, Polaris in Canada or Prix Constantin in France. These organizations don’t just put on a big show once a year to crown the best in music. They are actively involved in the development and promotion of their industry throughout the year. They also help young musicians by awarding scholarships to deserving students and others interested in related fields. A student in Sound Engineering or a young adult specializing in Entertainment Law may benefit from such scholarships. It is a complete synergy specifically designed to encourage the growth of the industry and support young artists to innovate and produce. The reward is great for all involved.
Too many times the public is victimized by the conduct of Konpa musicians, promoters, managers and others. It seems that young revelers roll the dice when they go to nightclubs that cater to a Haitian public. No one should expect to get hurt when out for an evening of fun. Parties begin hours after the scheduled time, fights break out, bullets fly, and what is it with musicians who refuse to play opening acts because of ill written contracts; all to stroke their ego. Stupid! These chaotic scenes defy logic. Admittedly this does not happen only where Konpa is played. Other venues have known their share of mayhem. But when it comes to Konpa, there should be some balance given the state of the music. I acknowledge not all of these problems can be attributed to the musicians, but if they clamor for public attention, they should realize their influence is palpable. Consequently their actions lay the fertile ground for such antics. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you; many friends convey to me that it’s not worth their time to go to these affairs, specifically because they were victimized and insulted by the lack of respect shown their way, repeatedly: Lost opportunity. The paying public deserves better and should demand more. These acts should not be rewarded and the culprits should be made to pay dearly, if only to give respect and show appreciation to the public.
Simple, baby steps can go a long way to propel Konpa on the international scene. After more than fifty years of Konpa giving unadulterated pleasure to Haitians, complacency has settled in. It’s time to shift gear and fire up this industry. We cannot sit and wait for other people, who also enjoy Konpa, to do the job for us: Remember Zouk? Lost opportunity!
The legacy of Konpa is one to fight for. If you are reading this, consider yourself enlisted. It’s an endeavor requiring every Konpa lover’s attention. Nemours Jean-Baptiste would not want it any other way.