Editor’s Note: This article was written by Nathalie ‘Talie’ Cerin, a Haitian singer-songwriter, teaching artist, podcast host & blogger currently living in Philadelphia. She is the Editor of @woymagazine. Follow her on Instagram.
66 years ago, while on a visit to Haiti’s famous sacred waterfall Sodo, Haitian saxophonist Nemours Jean-Baptiste sat under a gazebo. He turned to his friend and fellow saxophonist, Webert Sicot, and said, “let’s start a band.” They went on to form Conjunto International with the addition of accordion, bass, and vocals. They played their first show on July 26th, 1955 in Port-au-Prince. July 26th has since gone down in history as the birthday of Konpa, Haiti’s most popular genre, the rhythm most internationally recognized as Haiti’s mark on music.
Nemours Jean Baptiste called his new band’s style of music, Konpa Dirèk, Direct Konpa. In the last interview he ever granted on the Television Nationale d’Haiti before he died, Jean-Baptiste explained why he called it “direct”. All of the ensemble’s songs had a chord progression of two chords, no third chord would be added or accidentals. A simple 5-1 progression with the same basic walking bass pattern holding the foundation. Direct.
Fabrice Rouzier is a legendary Haitian pianist and producer. In 1984, he founded one of the most iconic Konpa bands, Mizik Mizik, along with his collaborator Kéké Bélizaire, and he has gone on to produce for countless more musical acts. Before he was a musician with a band, Rouzier was a DJ with a vast collection of records from all kinds of genres from around the world. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the evolution of Konpa and the historical contexts that informed them. As a producer and bandleader, Rouzier is credited with having his imprint on 260 Haitian music albums. As we celebrate the 66th anniversary of Konpa this week, Rouzier had a wonderful talk with me about Konpa, and the ways it’s evolved since that fateful day under that gazebo.
The music of Haiti, a country founded by freed enslaved people, reflects that history. It is a mixture of Africa and what was adopted from the colonizers fused together, along with new rhythms birthed from conversations between other African diaspora communities. For example, before Konpa, there was the Meringue Lente, a musical style created by Haitian musician Occide Jeanty. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw a lot of commercial trade, and as a result, cultural exchange between Haiti and Cuba. What was known as Meringue Lente, is credited by many to be the predecessor of Habanera and Danzon de Cuba.
When Konpa was created, this same cultural exchange was happening with Haiti and its neighboring countries. There was a general fascination in the region, and African communities around the world, with the Cuban revolution, and as a result the music of Cuba. There was also the music of Haiti’s neighbors in the Dominican Republic, where merengue was all the rage. Rouzier describes the rhythm that would eventually be known as Konpa as a slowed-down merengue, fused with the percussive rhythms from Haitians’ African heritage. “Haiti is a country that has something like 60 different rhythms. It is a very rich musical culture. Konpa drew from all of this. That’s what makes the Konpa from the golden era—from the 60s to the early 80s—it really makes it a lasting genre. And it is a composition that never loses its flavor, and it is inextricably Haitian. You can’t say it’s borrowed from any nation. It’s got an identity of its own, in a way that cannot be found in the music of today.”
In the late 1980s came the birth of the Zouk genre, a popular dance genre of the French Antilles. Prior to Zouk’s rise, Haitian Konpa dominated the airwaves in the French Caribbean. In the late ‘80s, the end of the Duvalier regime saw the dissolving of many of the biggest Konpa bands. Rouzier explains this as being because of the repressive nature of the regime, but also many were pushed out of existence because many Konpa bands were viewed as serving as mouthpieces for the Duvalier regime, something the Haitian people had little tolerance for following the movement that overthrew the dictatorship. What was left was a vacuum in the world of Francophone Caribbean music. The pioneers of Zouk music, many of whom began their musical careers as members of Konpa bands, went on to form a new genre pulling from the unique sounds from Guadeloupe and Martinique culture, and the undeniable impact of the popular Konpa music of the time. Interestingly, Zouk la se sèl medikaman nou ni (Zouk is the only medicine) by the famous Guadeloupean band Kassav, and arguably the most popular and recognizable zouk tune, was composed by Jacob Devarieux while he was in Haiti on tour.
Today, these cultural conversations amongst the communities from the Caribbean and countries in Africa continue to birth new genres, such as Kizomba, a wildly popular, relatively new music genre created as a result of Cape Verdeans’ exposure to Zouk, and marrying the genre with the traditional Cape Verdean Coladera style. Interestingly enough, some of the most popular Kizomba tunes are made right in Boston, which is home to a large Cape Verdean immigrant community. Boston also happens to be home to one of the largest Haitian communities in the United States, and it is not uncommon to find Konpa artists playing on popular Kizomba instrumentals. In cities where various immigrant strongholds hailing from Africa and the Caribbean are finding community with each other, like in New York, Miami, Paris, Montreal, etc, we are finding these new dance sounds with the same basic rhythm akin to Konpa and Zouk.
Zouk and Kizomba, unlike Konpa, have been able to gain a mass appeal around the world because of their creators’ keen insight into commercialization. “The producers that are doing Zouk, Kizomba, Afropop,” Rouzier furthers, “they operate differently than the producers of Konpa. Traditionally, the shortest Konpa song is about 6-7 minutes, and they’re not very radio-friendly. Whereas zouk has made it more simple and made it easier for people unaccustomed to this type of sound to accept it.”
Since its inception, Konpa has seen many phases and iterations, influenced by popular genres of the region, new sounds from the United States, and Haiti’s socio-political circumstances. Rouzier explained, “Konpa has been influenced by every single musical change that has occurred worldwide. Konpa has been influenced by the Yé-Yé French pop music, by the Beatles, by the funk era in the U.S., by disco, and by hip hop in the 90’s up until today. It is not immune to outside influences.”
Today, the Haitian diaspora can be found all over the world. Political circumstances which affect Haitians’ quality of life have pushed many Haitians out of the country to other parts of the world in search of a better life. The political climate of Haiti in the last 10 years has seen the unprecedented plummeting of the cost of the Haitian Gourde, an untenable rise in gang violence, and a general climate of insecurity that has made life so dispensable. The recent assassination of the former Haitian president is a symptom of an ongoing crisis and did not occur in a vacuum. It comes as no surprise that in the midst of this, Haitians have fled Haiti in peak numbers in the last decade, this time the trends of immigration have led them to places such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and other countries of South America. And as Haitians have always done historically, Rouzier deeply believes, the music that will come from these new Haitian immigrant communities and the painful stories of their voyages to these South American countries will birth new forms of Konpa with them. Because after all, Konpa is and always has been a conversation.