Miami’s Haitian Compas Festival has endured it all through the years.
It has bounced between venues, staved off competition, tried being a two-day event and has seen its celebrations dampen by rain and bad timing.
But if there is one thing that has remained constant over the past 20 years — with the annual display of Haitian culture besides its A-list offerings of who's who in Haitian konpa (also spelled kompa and compas) music — it’s the festival's reuniting ambiance and promotion of Haitian heritage among Haiti's growing diaspora.
“People who haven’t seen each other for years or for months make it a rendezvous for them to see each other in Miami,” said music promoter Rodney Noel, promising a lot of high-energy performances during this year's 20th anniversary celebration on Saturday, May 19, at the festival's newest venue Mana Wywood, 818 NW 23rd St. “People put it on their calendar as their vacation.”
Henry Cadet, 42, is one of them. Born and raised in Chicago, Cadet says with the exception of the year 2000 when his mother died, he has been to every compas fest, as fans call it for short, since Noel and business partner Jean-Michel Cerenod staged the first showcase on a rocky Virginia Key Beach with the Miami-based band T-Vice headlining.
“I fly in and have 20 to 30 people coming down with me,” said Cadet, a Transportation Security Administration employee who also moonlights as DJ "Bigdaddyrou." “They are Haitians, Americans, and some are Hispanics. ... I even have people from England coming down just to go to the festival."
Chicago — founded in the late 18th century by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who was born in the city of St. Marc in what is now Haiti — has a small Haitian community. But there is nothing like representing the Haitian culture in Miami, Cadet said, during compas fest, which is also a celebration of May 18, the founding of Haiti's bi-color blue and red flag. (The entire month of May is recognized as Haitian Heritage Month).
“You see the diversity and ethnicity in the Haitian culture, the music and the crafts.," he said. "It's like a family thing. Every time you go, you end the visit with, 'OK, I'll see you next year.'"
The largest street party post Haiti's pre-Lenten carnival, compas fest is the largest staging ground in the United States for konpa or konpa dirèk, which was popularized in the 1950s by Haitian saxophonist Nemours Jean-Baptiste, who blended Dominican merengue with Cuban dance genres.
Despite its popularity among Haitians in the diaspora, however, konpa's distinct seductive beats has been losing some of its appeal in Haiti. Today, rhythms such as rabòday, a dance-friendly dance music emerging out of Haiti’s slums, and hip hop and electronic dance music, mixed with traditional Haitian drums and horns, are what's bringing out the crowds as they pack venues in larger numbers than konpa bals (dances).
“I don’t know what’s going on in Haiti right now," said Noel, "but they are only playing 20 percent of the konpa music on the airwaves in Haiti, while here in Miami we have an event that is getting 20,000 to 25,000 people together and singing konpa. I don’t think konpa has an issue. I just think the airwaves in Haiti need to push konpa more.”
Wilky “Kikko” Saint-Hilaire, a North Miami-based songwriter for konpa musicians, blames the dwindling interest among Haiti's youth on the generation's disenchantment with the country.
“The young people in Haiti have lost hope, so they have lost their identity,” he said. “They don’t want to listen to konpa. They don’t want to dance to konpa anymore so they are trying to adopt other cultures. All they want to do is listen to rap, hip hop; anything but konpa."
But in Miami and elsewhere in the diaspora where young bands like Harmonik and KAI are growing their fan base with young fans, it's a different scene, said Saint-Hilaire, who has songs on newly released albums by Rutshelle Guillaume, T-Vice and Gabel (among this year's line up), as well as veteran band Zenglen. Zenglen, which is holding a listening party for its new album on Saturday, will not be at this year's festival, nor will crowd favorites Klass and dISIP.
“Konpa has become our identity,” said Saint-Hilaire, the songwriter. “It’s not just a musical form. It’s what we identify with as Haitians, any place we go to, we hear the konpa and we say, ‘We’ve got some Haitians in here.'”
In celebration of that, Noel and Cerenod will pay homage to the music and its fallen musicians as part of this year's 20th anniversary celebratrion.
At an invitation-only ceremony Thursday, May 17, at Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center, 20 musicians, music promoters, influencers and community members will be inducted into the newly created Compas Festival Hall of Fame for their contributions to the music's vitality. Ten other musicians and bands, including Tabou Combo, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, will be honored with Living Legend awards.
The following day, festival organizers are inviting the pubic to a memorial Mass at 11 a.m. at Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church, 110 NE 62nd St., to pay tribute to the many Haitian artists who have contributed to konpa musical's success and evolution.
“Konpa has become our identity,” said Saint-Hilaire, the songwriter. “It’s not just a musical form. It’s what we identify with as Haitians, any place we go to, we hear the konpa and we say, ‘We’ve got some Haitians in here.' ”
Moises Cherry, a konpa fan formerly of Miami, said 20 years of existence for a Haitian festival is no small feat.
"Twenty years should mean something to everybody," said Cherry, 39, a private investigator. "It simply shows that when we get together we can do great things."
Cherry, who moved to New York and now lives in New Orleans, prides himself on having attended every compas fest. The annual ritual, he said, is now tradition for him.
“It’s more than just coming down and having a good time, and going to the different parties,” he said. “I know I am coming to Miami, will have a good time and eat some griyo (cooked pork) and get to party—it feels like I am in Haiti.
“Even though they do value the Haitian culture here,” he said of New Orleans, “there is nothing like when you are in Miami for that weekend. There is something about seeing the bands perform live."
Haitian Compas Festival
Doors to the Haitian Compas Festival open at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 19, at Mana Wynwood, 818 NW 23rd St., Miami.
Tickest are $45 and $100 VIP in advance, and can be purchased at www.Haitiancompasfestival.com or call 786-458-3140.