The popular Haitian konpa song asks: Ki lang ou pale lè w’ap fè lanmou? (What language do you speak when you’re making love?)
M’pale Kreyòl, the singer croons. I speak Creole.
The song, a tribute to Haiti’s mother tongue by the band K-Dans, is symbiotic of what konpa artist Gazzman Couleur has managed to elevate with his talent. His latest album, “Kleré Yo,” is the perfect marriage of language, love, and Haitian culture.
The 12-track album is deeply personal, filled with lyrics of love and loss, and messages of faith and hope.
“dISIP’s album is fabulous,” said Garry Pierre-Pierre, publisher of the New York-based Haitian Times newspaper and producer of Kreyolfest, the largest Haitian music festival north of Miami. “Gazzman sings with emotion and power.”
After a two-year absence in which his presence on the dance-driven konpa scene wasn’t felt and some had written him off, Couleur is enjoying a musical rebirth.
For months, he and his South Florida-based band dISIP (as in disciple — a nod to his deep sense of spirituality) have been wooing fans and winning accolades with the album’s electrified guitar and keyboard-driven rhythms —fanning hope that konpa might be able to break through its wall of isolation.
“Kleré Yo’s” lyrics, arrangements, and melodies have been critically acclaimed by Haitian music industry watchers, earning Couleur several konpa Album-of-the-Year honors, including one from Haiti’s leading entertainment publication, Ticket Magazine. “There is no debate,” editor Gaelle Alexis said in her roundup of the top 2016 entertainment acts.
This month, before a crowd of more than 3,000 partygoers in Montreal, a city official cited Couleur’s “determination and perseverance” while awarding him a plaque for his contribution to the genre.
“It’s a big achievement,” Couleur said about the accolades. “It means you’ve done the best work that you’ve ever done.”
Konpa or konpa dirèk, as it’s also known, was created in the 1950s by Haitian saxophonist Nemours Jean-Baptiste. He blended Dominican merengue with Cuban dance genres, such as mambo and Danzón, to produce a mix of slowed down hip-swaying rhythms fused with the melodic horns heard in Cuban salsa, and spiced up with pulsating percussion beats. That blend induces a seductive dance that keeps fans swaying for hours.
And while konpa isn’t as ubiquitous as Latin music or reggae — despite the longevity and popularity of bands like Tabou Combo, which turns 50 this year, or Tropicana at 54 — a new generation of musicians is trying to widen its reach. They are mixing traditional Creole and French lyrics with more English, and the music’s familiar African-Latin rhythms with American pop and other beats.
“It’s tough for a young band to clearly and totally live off music, but we’re noticing that if it is properly organized, it can,” said Ticket Magazine editor-in-chief Frantz Duval. “Of course, there is no structure, no copyrights, and the field is often affected by the political climate. But those who invest and manage their careers properly can take off.”
Couleur, who counts Michael Jackson and Bob Marley among his musical influences, taps not only konpa’s traditional beats but R&B, rock and roll, and zouk, which is konpa’s French-Antilles’ cousin, to produce Kleré Yo.
“It’s a masterpiece,” said the artist, who is also revered for his socially conscious lyrics about Haiti’s dire reality. “We’ve produced 12 very distinct tracks that you can listen to with no problem.”
This includes the melancholy, zouk-fused “It Doesn’t Matter,” featuring Guadeloupean songstress Jessye Belleval; the anthem-like sociopolitical critique of Haiti’s vexing reality, “San Manti”; and the painfully biographical “J’ai brûle les étapes” (Steps). The song, which causes his eyes to well with tears at every performance, is an ode to his mother — who passed away a week before the album’s release.
The album’s first single, the R&B-inspired “Heatbreak & Misery,” is a collaboration with one of the most sought-after composers in the business, former Tabou Combo guitarist Dener Céide. The song has fans from Port-au-Prince to Paris, Miami to Montreal, cooing into an a capella euphoria as soon as its opening keyboard chords, simulating the sound of raindrops hitting a tin roof, begin.
Now the song is about to get a bit of competition as Couleur prepares to release a video for the song, “Lanmou Pi Fo” (The Power of Love). Just like with “Heartbreak & Misery,” his voice takes center stage in the up-tempo ballad about betrayal, absence, and overcoming the loss of a true love.
“Gazzman has a beautiful voice; one of the best voices in the Haitian music industry,” Duval said of the statuesque, 6-foot-2-inch artist with golden locks. “He is an outstanding entertainer on stage.”
If “Lanmou Pi Fo” showcases Couleur’s vocals, than its arrangement speaks to his talent as a producer and his insistence on perfection.
Near the end of the album’s completion, Couleur pulled up into a North Broward recording studio where music arranger Valery Lezin and dISIP guitarist Marckeson Saint Fleur were working with three background singers, trying to perfect the song.
The session should have lasted only a few hours. It ended seven hours later after a repeatedly dissatisfied Couleur finally relented. And that was only after he re-recorded some of his own verses after a debate with Lezin over a phrase.
“It’s the lyrics that sell music, and you have to speak a language that most people will understand,” said Couleur, who was born in Gonaives in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley. “I’m always trying to find that universal word, or Kreyòl that speaks to people in Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, Cap-Haitien, and even Martinique and Guadeloupe where konpa has a lot of fans.”
While talent abounds in the industry, a lack of organization and support continues to hamper konpa from moving to the next level. dISIP itself lacks the kind of marketing machine, for example, that other diaspora bands, such as Nu-Look and KLASS, have, Duval noted.
Konpa still relies mostly on the club scene — known as bals — and outdoor events like Kreyolfest or Miami’s Haitian Compas Festival to solidify its following.
“Promotion is scant and there is too much payola in the Haitian cultural media in Haiti, so bands cannot be played regularly,” said Pierre-Pierre, the Kreyolfest producer.
Another problem is the bands’ so-called rivalries that extend even to their fans, he said.
“Ideally, these would have been the hot parties, but these bands don’t want to battle each other at the same concerts for fear of losing bragging rights,” he said. “By the time they agree, it is either too expensive for a promoter or the rivalry is cold and not too many people are interested in it.”
But there is one rivalry — dISIP/Nu-Look in New York on Christmas Day — that gives Pierre-Pierre hope that “if this trend continues, konpa can get its groove back.”
The recent Christmas Day party marked the first time in six years that Couleur and Nu-Look bandleader Arly Larivière would share the same stage on the same night since Couleur left the band in 2010 after nine years. He and Larivière had formed Nu-Look after leaving another popular band, Miami’s D’Zine.
Dressed like “Star Wars” stormtroopers, dISIP’s nine musicians walked out onto the stage of Amazura Nightclub, followed by Couleur in a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo dress shoes. Channeling Darth Vader with a black cape and Michael Jackson with a white glove, black dress pants, and a red belt, Couleur opened with his Haiti earthquake-inspired gospel song, “Pawola La” (The Word).
And then right before the last song, Couleur sang, “Sainte Cecile” from Nu-Look’s second album. dISIP fans went wild. Nu-Look fans screamed treason.
Not waiting for Larivière’s comeback, one of the party’s promoters cemented Couleur’s role as an undisputed konpa front man by handing him a belt that looked like one for a boxing champion.
“People who are afraid of challenges are people who don’t believe in themselves,” Couleur said.
Couleur keeps it in perspective though. It wasn’t that long ago when crying fans — many of whom imitate his golden hairstyle — were wondering if the rumors of the band’s demise were true.
“For three years straight, we dominated and had the market; 2010, 2011, 2012, and then boom,” he said.
The boom was the entry of Haitian super-group KLASS, which burst onto the konpa scene with Jean Herard “Richie” Richard, former drummer and producer for Miami band Zenglen, and Edresse “Pipo” Stanis who had replaced Couleur in both D’Zine and Nu-Look.
“They were the new band on the block,” said Couleur who refused to abandon dISIP musicians and turned down an offer to form KLASS with Richie. “But I always knew our time would come around again.”
If you go
Upcoming dISIP shows.
Feb. 17: Sounds of Little Haiti, Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59th St., Miami. 6 to 10 p.m. Free.
Feb. 19: dISIP vs. KLASS at Club Boca, 7000 W. Palmetto Park Rd., 10 p.m. Cost is $35 in advance; 561-767-2829
March 4: dISIP featuring Jessye Belleval, Moca Cafe, 738 NE 125th St., North Miami. Cost is $25 in advance; 305-945-8814