The year was 1983, and Jacob Desvarieux was on tour with his French-Caribbean party band in Haiti when inspiration hit.
Sitting inside a Port-au-Prince hotel, the singer-guitarist took pen to paper and began jotting down the infectious lyrics and bouncing guitar riffs that would become the band’s first international hit. The song, a hip-swinging party anthem similar to the Electric Slide and Macarena pop culture phenomenons, captured legions of gyrating fans, many of whom for years believed the band Kassav was Haitian-born.
“When you get inspired by a song, you can be anywhere. We happened to have been in Haiti,” Desvarieux, a co-founder of Kassav said as he recalled the birth of their up-tempo 1984 dance hit, Zouk-la sé sèl médikamen nou ni (zouk is the only medicine we have) that started the group’s explosion, first in the Caribbean, and then later in Europe and Africa.
Thirty years later, the song’s infectious beats are still seducing Caribbean music lovers to hit the dance floor as its Creole lyrics proclaim the healing power of zouk, the hybrid musical sound Kassav pioneered in the 1980s.
“Zouk is the music of our region,” Desvarieux said with a chuckle.
Thousands of Haitian and Caribbean music fans will get to experience that sound for themselves when Kassav makes a rare South Florida appearance Saturday at the 16th Annual Haitian Compas Festival at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens.
The five-member band, which is usually as large as 13 musicians on stage, will join a line-up of mostly Haitian konpa bands that include homegrown Haitian rock stars, Tabou Combo, and newer generation konpa acts like T-Vice, Carimi, Djakout #1 and others as they celebrate Haitian Flag Day and heritage month.
Also among the 13-bands lined up are Barikad Crew, a rap Kreyòl group that counts among its fan base a former Haiti first lady turned presidential candidate; and Grammy-nominated roots band Boukman Eksperyans, which fuses local rhythms with rock and reggae.
Each brings their own flavor and fan base, including Kassav, whose fans span not just continents, but generations.
“We decided to invite them to perform because they are closer to our music, and Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Martin are all part of our biggest market,” festival organizer and music promoter Rodney Noel said of Kassav, whose members hail from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Noel and fellow-festival organizer Jean-Michel Cerenord say Kassav’s inclusion will spice things up at the event, which attracted 16,000 fans last year, and has become one of the biggest showcases for Haitian music outside of the island.
Also adding to this year’s attraction: a new venue, Sun Life Stadium. After 14 years in downtown Miami, the festival has been moved to Sun Life because it offers “more parking and more real estate to work with,” Noel said.
“There are people who haven’t been for a few years, and they said they are going to go this year. That’s something positive for us,” he added.
Of course, only the most trained ear may be able to discern the difference between zouk and konpa, which are so close they often share the same stage.
“The difference is something small and in the details,” said Desvarieux, adding that asking him to describe the difference between the two musical “cousins,” is “a little bit like if one asked me ‘What the difference is between a Haitian and a Guadeloupean or a Martiniquean, between a black man and a black man?’”
“I don’t know if anyone is capable of defining precisely this difference,” he said. “Yes it’s different, we’re all different, even individually. But konpa fans will listen to Kassav and will immediately tell you that ‘This is not konpa’.’’
Jocelyne Béroard, Kassav’s female lead singer, said “konpa and zouk are fighting to exist wider.”
For Kassav, the origins of that fight began at the onset of their founding, to play their rhythms, said Béroard, recalling how major French companies refused to sign the group “because we were ‘too roots.’ ”
“We started with the Caribbean, Haiti included, and people really enjoyed the music just like people of Guadeloupe and Martinique loved and supported Haitian music for years and still do,” she said.
Carel Pedre, a Port-au-Prince based radio and TV host, says one reason why Haitians are drawn to zouk and Kassav is because of the familiarity, even with the latter’s mixing of rhythms backed by heavy instrumentals.
“They won’t claim it, but it’s obvious that they were under the influence of a lot of konpa bands in the late 1970s,” Pedre said of Kassav. “They never acknowledge the fact that they’re playing konpa. But if it wasn’t for konpa, maybe they would be playing reggae now.”
If Kassav was influenced by an older generation of Haitian artists, then one can also argue that today’s newer generation of konpa stars, with their upbeat stage performances and driving guitar riffs, have also been influenced by the internationally renown group.
“Banks like Zin, Lakol, Papash, even Sweet Micky in the early ‘90s was influenced by Kassav somehow,” Pedre said, referring to current Haitian President Michel Martelly at the height of his popularity as the konpa artist ‘Sweet Micky.’
Richard Cave, the lead singer of Carimi, whose 2013 Invasion album peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s World Albums chart late last year, said there are no doubt lessons for konpa music in Kassav’s success.
“We have to evolve. There is no reason why you have to only stick to konpa music. You have to try and get a different crowd,” said Cave, fresh from opening the St. Lucia Jazz Festival earlier this month.
“There’s definitely a lot of work that needs to be done, a change in mentality,” he added.
Desvarieux, who has shared his experience with many Haitian artists, agrees. Where popular Haitian bands for instance have been plagued by infighting and breakups, Kassav has remained together even as individual band members have become superstars on their own with solo albums.
“We all in the group understand how to make this last; we understand our strength comes from being a team,” he said.
And while there is no exact science for crossover success, Desvarieux said, marketing and world-beat are key.
“The new generation [Haitian] bands, if they want to reach the word they will have to play music for the world. It seems they only want to reach the Haitian population. It’s a question of marketing,” Desvarieux said. “You have to do music that touches everyone not just Haitians, because the Haitian market is a very small market.”
And while many Haitian artists and fans have long believed that the group’s success was due to French government support, both Desvarieux and Béroard said nothing could be further from the truth.
“In 35 years of existence we have never received, not even one percent of aid from the French government,” Desvarieux said. “Air France was our sponsor at the beginning of the ‘80s, which allowed us to reduce some transport costs in some concerts abroad.”
Recalling that Haiti visit many decades earlier, Desvarieux muses about the songs that were inspired on that trip. There were a few, he said, in addition to Zouk-la sé sèl médikamen nou ni. But it was that song, the international Antillean Creole hit that still plays at Haitian wedding receptions, First Communions and birthday parties, that Desvarieux said he wanted one of Haiti’s biggest stars, famed bandleader and singer Coupé Cloué to rap on.
Desvarieux never realized his dream. But in the years since the song’s writings and Coupé Cloué’s death, Kassav has shared the stage with many other great Haitian artists and paid tribute to Haiti with songs like Kobay, Si sé ta'w and Ba yo lanmen.
“I have a great consideration for Haitian artist and many are my friends,” said Béroard.