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Haiti canceled Carnival. But these artists are making it up at the Haitian Compas Festival in Miami

Fans of Haitian music look forward every year to celebrating their culture during Haitian Compas Festival, which again this year will take place at Mana Wynwood in Miami on May 18. The event is the premier showcase for Haitian music and culture in the United States.
Fans of Haitian music look forward every year to celebrating their culture during Haitian Compas Festival, which again this year will take place at Mana Wynwood in Miami on May 18. The event is the premier showcase for Haitian music and culture in the United States. Bryan Cereijo

Lately, life hasn’t been kind to Haiti’s konpa musicians. Their usually profitable summer and winter touring season both took hits thanks to the country’s deepening political crisis, souring economy and State Department travel warnings.

Shows got canceled, promoters and artists had to return advances and then in March, the government canceled Carnival, making matters worse.

“Politics always interfere just at the moment when the country begins to have life, and we artists are always the first ones who suffer,” said Joseph “Ti-Joe” Zenny, leader of the Haiti-based group Kreyòl La, while noting that the “entire Carnival season was ruined.”

Joseph “T-Joe” Zenny, leader of the Haiti-based group Kreyòl La, performing at Miami’s Haitian Compas Festival in 2018. Haitian Compas Festival Facebook

But while politically volatile Haiti remains in turmoil, Miami is not. And what that means is that konpa music fans can expect bands like Kreyòl La and other top Haitian musicians to bring it this Saturday when South Florida pays tribute to Haiti Flag Day, May 18, with the annual Haitian Compas Festival.

“Compas Fest is like a flag that says we still exist, the music still exists,” Zenny said. “That’s the ambiance we all will be bringing.”

Roberto Martino, lead singer of the band T-Vice, agrees.

“With social media, you get to hear and see everything that’s going on at home all of the time, “ he said. “It has an impact on everybody....and at the end of the day, we are all taking a hit.

“What I can say is that this year, a lot of people want to come to Miami,” he added. “A lot of people are tired of hearing all of the bad news about Haiti and this is a good opportunity for them to come out and see all of the bands.”

Maybe not all.

While this year’s festival will feature more than two dozen top Haitian bands, solo artists and deejays, there are a few noticeable absences. Former President Michel Martelly, who resumed his musical career as “Sweet Micky” with a 2017 appearance at the festival, is not part of this year’s line up. Nor are fan favorites Klass and dISIP, two bands that have had top konpa albums in recent years and are expected to release new albums within days of each other this week.

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Gazzman Couleur, the founder and lead singer of dISIP, said the band has another gig in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on that Saturday. Meanwhile, Edersse “Pipo” Stanis, co-founder of Klass, said his band’s management and festival organizers were unable to come to an agreement over their performance. Neither he nor festival co-founder Rodney Noel would provide details about the negotiations.

Last year, Klass surprised fans and caught the ire of some when it opted to host an album release party on the Friday before the festival. The competing party was held on a day usually reserved for Compas Festival events, which have become a mainstay of the weekend and another way for artists to get paid.

Both Stanis and Noel insist there is no love lost.

“Compas Fest is a platform for Haitian music and Haitian musicians, where all of the bands can encounter one another,” said Stanis, who again has a scheduled album released party on Friday, the day before Compas Fest. “We may not do business together but that doesn’t mean we don’t want the other to exist.”

Also unclear is whether Djakout #1, which is set to perform at the festival and at Cafe Iguana Pines in Pembroke Pines alongside Zenglen, Kai and Roody Roodboy on Friday, will show up with both of its lead singers, Pouchon Duverger and Shabba. Last month, the two got into a heated exchange, and Shabba eventually walked off the stage in the middle of the group’s performance at Port-au-Prince’s Esquina Latina nightclub.

The fight has left fans wondering about the fate of the band, as well as its performance at Compas , which has also become a stage for Djakout #1’s ongoing battle of the bands with T-Vice.

“I think Shabba will be back with Djakout in time for Compas Fest,” said Noel, who has been trying to mediate the crisis from Miami. “I think they are going to help resolved their issues.”

Noel, who co-founded the festival 21 years ago with Jean Michel Cerenord, his partner in Noel & Cecibon Production, said while it’s hard to imagine topping last year’s festival, which featured a star studded performance by legendary Haitian musicians at a special awards show in the days before, this year will be better. He said the reason is due to Carnival.

“The fact there was no Carnival this year in Haiti means a lot of people changed their minds about traveling to Haiti and decided to come to Miami for Compas Fest,” Noel said. “Also a lot of the bands recorded their Carnival songs and didn’t get to perform it, so a lot of them will get that chance.”

Both Zenny, which even released a video of Kreyòl La’s carnival song, and Martino, who never even publicly released the name of T-Vice’s song, say they plan to give fans a taste of what they would have seen had the rowdy bacchanal happened this year in Haiti.

The three singers that make up the Haitian konpa band Harmonik -- Nickenson Prudhomme, Mackendy “Mac D” Talon and Sanders Solon -- has been winning fans with their lyrical talent. They are among several bands releasing new albums days ahead of Miami’s Haitian Compas Festival. Courtesy of Harmonik

But that’s not the only new music fans can expect to hear.

With both Klass and dISIP scheduled to drop new albums this week, so too is Harmonik, the band that Noel manages. The band’s 2016 album “Degaje” produced several hits and Noel said the new album, “Respe”, released last Friday, is a winner.

“People think that after the last album “Degaje,” Harmonik could never surpass that production, but everybody is going to be in shock,” Noel said, noting that the word respe means respect and the band has earned it on the album.

Interesting enough, the album was co-produced by Djakout producer and musician Réginald Bastien, aka Ti Régi, creating deeper buzz about the fate of Djakout #1’s future and whether Bastien was permanently joining Harmonik.

“It’s not the first time that Ti Régi’s put his input on a Harmonik album,” said band co-producer and singer Sanders Solon, who has also worked on Djakout #1’s last four albums and noted that this time around he and Ti Régi decided to create a real partnership where the Djakout musician will actually profit from the success of Harmonik’s new album. “We’ve been doing this back and forth for the past 12 years...We’re a great team together.”

As for the album, Solon, speaking from Paris, France, said there is a lot for Haitian music fans to love.

“We made sure on this album that every song had its own identity,” he said. “Mostly what fans are going to experience on this new record is every song is a different vibe, a different rhythm, a different style....We made sure everything is different on each and every song.”

If You go:

What: Haitian Compas Festival

Where: Mana Wynwood, 318 NW 23rd St., Miami

When: 4 p.m. - 6 a.m. May 18

Ticket: $50 in advance for general admission, $100 VIP. Tickets can be purchased at eventbrite or call 305-945-8814.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.