Compass for Konpa

In a recent discussion on second generation Haitian-Americans, wayneandwax had this to ask:

i'm getting the sense that the increasingly visible (and audible) haitian population around here is slowly changing some of this stigmatization. Boston's caribbean community has been slowly accommodating these changes, and there is now a sense among local reggae selectors that the majority of folks coming out to reggae/calypso events are haitian. but, then, you have to wonder: where's the konpa? soon come?

It's definitely in my headphones as well as most Haitians' whether they call Port-au-Prince, Paris, Boston or New York home. Also, Martiniquans, Guadeloupeans, French Guyanians, St-Lucians and Dominicans have listened to konpa (also spelled kompa, compa and compas) and even formed konpa bands long before Zouk was born. (In fact early zouk manifestos often positioned zouk as a revolt against haitian domination of Martiniquan and Guadeloupean music markets.)

Here in NY, it's danced by a broad cross-section of people at SOB's on Friday nights. I haven't been in a while but I surmise that crowd to be broad although mostly haitian. And of course Haitians are dancing it at humongous gawdy hotel ballrooms in Queens, Long Island and Jersey for upwards of 20 bucks a person every weekend. My non-Haitian friends of all colors and creeds love to dance it when I entertain them, but then again it could be to kiss up to me. Okay, fine, I'm not that important. They may just enjoy it.

Language barrier?

There may be a language barrier, although it has not stopped latin music, probably because its own market carries it and because it's been accessible to Americans for longer. So the question to ask is can and will the haitian-american market carry konpa or other Haitian music genres to the mainstream --or at least to its fringes, kind of like Kevin Little has done for soca? Your guess is as good as mine.


The Labor Day parade is definitely giving it exposure beyond its usual audience but community will and musician organization have to be tight as well. The documentary Catch a Fire proves that Bob Marley's music was marketed to American and European audiences after much calculation by Chris Blackwell and others, using instruments and musicians familiar to these audiences, occasionally washing the music down as in "Three Little Birds." Is anyone doing that for Haitian music? I'm not sure. And neither is a commentator from www.heritagekonpa.com, in an interesting article on Papa Jube's role in promoting and producing Haitian music. In the article, Jube deplores the lack of adequate infrastructure and organization among haitian music actors in marketing Haitian music. (Interestingly, the article reaches a lot of the conclusions I had intuited.)

Of course Tabou Combo has held steady with non-haitian francophone audiences for over 25 years and Wyclef Jean is definitely trying to bring the music to even broader audiences. (Cf the Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101 album on his Sak Pase label.) Time will tell... I'd love to hear what the musicians and ethnomusicologists think... Where is our resident musician poster Markus Schwartz when we need him?

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mbayisyen said...

sad to say but compas has been dying of a slow death in the past years. I'd say the heyday was in the early 80s and it all went downhill from there.
Í was a huge T-Vice fan growing up but let's face, the band may be putting a very exciting show but musically-wise, its'mediocre at best.

Alice B. said...

Early eighties??? You mean that time when the records only had 4 songs lasting 20 minutes each??? Can't agree on this one. I think konpa got a much needed makeover. I don't know T-Vice well so I won't comment on them. But Carimi and KreyolLa are doing well IMHO judging from their latest singles.

Anonymous said...

For konpa to gain international acceptance it will have to begin with the musicians in how they view this genre of music. Tabou Combo managed to make a name for itself as a band internationally and sold the right to one of it's most successful song (New York City) to Carlos Santana (Foo Foo). But that's it. One problem is the structure of konpa music. If I was a dj on American or any radio other than Haitian, I would not play this kind of music on the air. It has little listening and commercial appeal to an American audience. Of course once one discovers the intricacies of dancing konpa, and the sweetness of "dansé collé" the music is heaven. That is primarily the goal of konpa music: Dancé collé. Because of that, its success will always be limited, very limited. I think there should be two versions of every konpa song ever written: One to dance to and another to listen to. The other problem is the literary value of konpa music. My father made me listen to some old music from "Jazz des Jeunes, "Trio Select", "Joe Trouillot" "Raoul Guillaume", "Guy Durosiers" etc... At first I was bored but the words caught my attention. Although those songs were also full of lyrics that degrade other musicians, and belittle women, they used the Creole language creatively. They had some poetic value. I do not agree with the messages they convey. But they were lampooning bits and pieces of Haitian life. One could not take them seriously. They were funny. In those days, the success of songs or bands was measuered by how they creatively outdid each other by the melodies and the creativity of the lyrics. Now the only measure of success is how much money is made. There is no care for the audience, there is no pride in the product. As long as it contimues this way, konpa will suffer.

Alice B. said...

Thanks for this insight, LeJeremien. Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

I will try to keep this short and sweet and list the reasons why I dont forsee Kompa becoming popular enough to attract the masses.

1. Kompa is not pop music...it's contemporary jazz done in Haitian fashion...Haitians should be pushing another form of Haitian music with more beats, more pop so even those that cant understand can dance along in joy rather then just dance to please their Haitian friends (I like you think my non Haitian friends pretend to enjoy it to please me)

2. Kompa has no beat...period...people get addicted to music with beat not groove...beats are what makes us want to dance, Kompa doesn't do that to anyone who didn't grow up having to listen to it

3. We cant even agree on a spelling so how can anyone ever get into it if they cant google it properly? Kompa, Kompas, Compas, Compa, Konpa, Konpas, Kunpa, Kumpas and the list goes on

4. What is the message? The lack of a conscious message coming from a suffering country is not attractive...even Haitian Americans lose interest because at some point you ask yourself, isn't Haiti a suffering country? how come the music doesn't reflect that? everyone roots for the little guys, that's how Reggae which has always been offbeat to the Westernized nations got where it is, it was a music that was fighting for the rights of it's people...We loved artists like Bob Marley not just for the music but for his message...no Kompa artists have yet delivered Haiti's message and for Kompa to progress, it has to show it's connection to Haiti and Haiti's situation

There are a bunch of reasons why I beleive we should jump off the Kompa ship before it sinks, but I'll let you ponder on those...Long live Kreyol Hip Hop, Ragga and Racine

Alice B. said...

Interesting points, E2e4 and JJ.

JJ, you make an interesting point about the music lacking a message. How do you explain that rasin, which has a message, did not become the preferred form of Haitian popular music?

Anonymous said...


racine didnt become the preferred genre for one simple reason...it's too African and it is regarded by many as "vodou music"...one thing we Haitians and alot of Afrocentric people do in the third world is try to run from our African roots as much as possible or trade it in for more European roots...Kompa is more related to the European aspects of our culture and has given us something that's not stigmatized as much as racine and vodou has been

Anonymous said...

oh please enough with the crossover. Yeah there are some bad konpa bands out there,but just because konpa is not mainstream it doesn't mean its not good music. are most of those pop, hip hop you listening to are good music, I don't think so.reggaeton is popular, do you call that good music? hell no. is dancehall reaggae good music? I don't think so.If konpa have to be like those popular music gens, then they better stay how they are right now.The HMI needs to be more orgonize,that's they problem

Alice B. said...

thanks to all for this great discussion. i think you make a great point about reggaeton, anonymous. i do agree that lots of not so innovative music sells. one thing reggaeton has though is a big, eager market. but ours isn't the smallest out there either. for example i notice that trini and jamaican selectors make sure to always give special shoutouts to haitians these days. i'm sure it has to do with how much bigger we are as a market than either the trini or jamaican markets individually. just my rambling 2 cents for tonight.

Anonymous said...

I promote Konpa Mood Saturday.. at Bogart's in New York (shameless plug) the place is on park ave. and natuarrly we get a lot of non-haitians attending... As the door person i hear all the critics as they come in and out... and i have to say that most of our patrons... like if not love our music...a typical comment would be " wow what was that? it's very sensual and very nice to dance to" and my response would be "that is haitian music and it's called Konpa" and the next comment that would always come out from them is ..." ok what the hell are they saying"... personally i think the language barrier is one of the major problems...Promotions is the next... someone mentioned Latin music and reggeton and how popular they are...my sawer to them would be .. Hello have you looked around lately?...Latinos out number haitian by at least 5 to 1.. and even us haitians speak some spanish and a lot ofamericans do to.. Who speaks Creole?
Us and a few other Antilles people.. and these people have their own music and reggae. All i'm saying is... sing in english if you want to "crossover". As for me, kite ti konpa'm jan li ye'a!!!

Anonymous said...

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Val said...

I think kompa is verry adwance and actualy has mandy beatsand many rise an falls. You will note most kompa songs have more then one breakdown. There are also alot of songs of different cultures of recent mixed into a kompa beat. The problem with haiti is that they world does not see you stregnths but our povery. hard you promote music from inside a country to others when our problems over shadow our artistics value.

Val said...

I think kompa is verry adwance and actualy has mandy beatsand many rise an falls. You will note most kompa songs have more then one breakdown. There are also alot of songs of different cultures of recent mixed into a kompa beat. The problem with haiti is that they world does not see you stregnths but our povery. hard you promote music from inside a country to others when our problems over shadow our artistics value.