By Peter Prime
Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, once intoned, in a duet with Paul McCartney, the British musical icon, “I am a lover but not a fighter.” This phrase would be an apt description of Alan Cave who has captivated the hearts of most Haitian music aficionados, particularly female fans, for almost thirty years. For more than two decades, Alan has been the crooner-in-chief in the Haitian Music Industry (HMI). Even after all those years, his well-crafted songs have never lost their luster. His most recent double album, Timeless, is a case in point. His numerous ballads always have an uncanny ability to enchant or transport the listeners to a higher plane where they could escape either their daily routines or forget about any burden that life might throw at them.
His musical oeuvre has given Alan a well-earned reputation for being a “lover.” But many fans might be surprised to know that Alan was more of a “fighter” while he was growing up. As Alan recounted in an in-depth interview, he was shown the doors in some of the schools that he attended because he got into fights with some of his classmates. That fighting spirit that had taken hold of Alan during his youth started to ebb as he began touring Martinique, Guadeloupe and the rural areas of Haiti with his talented father, Syto Cave and his theatrical group, which was called Kouidor. During that tour, Alan’s role in his father’s variety show had more to do with dancing than singing. The incorporation of a few dance moves into his role was understandable because Alan was a break-dancer in his teens. As someone who has idolized Michael Jackson, those few dance steps had included the signature move of his idol, the Moonwalker.
But one day, owing to the absence of Boulo Valcourt, a well-known Haitian artist, who was slated to end the show by performing “La Personne,” Alan was asked to perform in his stead. Replacing a great artist like Boulo could have been too big of a challenge for even an established performer, let alone a novice like Alan. But he managed to win over the audience by giving a thrilling performance, which earned him a standing ovation. Alan was more into dancing before touring with his father. But after this breakout performance, he started to mull singing as a career option.
While living in Delmas, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Alan, his younger brother, Syto Cave Jr., along with some friends, including Stanley Toussaint-who later became one of the founding members of the group Lakol-began doing music; however, this foray into music was mostly for fun. His very first composition was called “Bel Fle.” At that point, Alan was asked how did he end up becoming a member of the group, Zin. Alan responded that while he was in New York City, he used to jam with a few friends. Alex Abellard, a founding member of Zin, also knew some of those same guys. Alex got to hear Alan sing for the first time through a demo tape, which he did during one of those jam sessions. Upon hearing of the tape, Alex became interested in meeting Alan. Wydens Joseph was both a friend of Alex and Syto Jr. Thus, Alex got to meet Alan through Wydens. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
Zin made a big splash with the release of Fem Vole in 1988. It did not take long for many members of the group such as Alex Abellard and Georgy Metellus to become household names both in Haiti and in the diaspora. As the face of the group, Alan began attracting a strong following as well. Alan burst on the musical scene at a time when a new group of artists were pushing the boundaries of Kompa, the main genre of Haitian music. These new artists who grew up listening to Zouk, Jazz, Reggae, American Pop and R&B began incorporating elements of those foreign influences into their music. Alan has typified this new trend. As someone who spent his teenage years both in New York City and in Haiti, his musical tastes had been and remain eclectic. In the interview, Alan mentioned that he was a big fan of Michael Jackson, Kool & The Gang, Kassav, Zekle, Skandal, Sakaj and “chansonette francaise.” These influences have manifested themselves in the way that Alan sings and in his sound.
Alan came onto the musical scene at a time when Haitian music was at a high point. In retrospect, this period could be regarded as one of the golden eras of Haitian music not only because of the number of bands but also because of the quality of those musical groups that were in existence. During the 1990s, there was an embarrassment of riches when it comes to musical bands. For instance, there were groups like Missile 727, Sweet Micky, Djakout, Papash, Lakol, Phantoms, Zenglen, whose album An Nou Alez played an important role in launching the “Nouvelle Generation” as those groups who were created in this era became known. Since the original Kompa groups such as Tabou Combo, Skah Shah #1 and System Band were still going strong coupled with the advent of so many new groups, achieving success in the HMI was far from being guaranteed at that time. To make a name for oneself in the HMI during that period required dedication and more importantly an abundance of talent.
It has been said that the proverbial apple does not fall far from the tree. In the case of Alan, this saying could not have been any truer. Both his mother and father are well-known writers and artists. Yanick Jean, Alan’s mother, was a painter as well as a writer. Yanick published two works of poetry, including “Fidelity Non Plus,” which was republished in Montreal in 2003. Therefore, Alan’s songwriting ability can be traced to his father as well as to his beloved mother. As important, Yanick sought to nurture and develop his son’s singing talent by encouraging him to sing with his eyes closed while Alan was growing up. In this sense, Yanick wanted Alan not just to utter the words of a song but to infuse each word with feelings. Simply put, Yanick wanted Alan to become a soulful singer in the parlance of American music. Alan has become a successful singer because he always manages to imbue the lyrics of his songs with a lot of feelings. It could, thus be said that Yanick did play an important role in helping Alan develop the soulfulness that has become his trademark as a singer.
Moreover, he was taught to play the guitar by Boulo Valcourt; he sang in the choir at the Church of Sacre Coeur; Alan toured with his father’s theatrical group while he was still an adolescent. His musical gifts have been evident ever since the release of Zin’s first album, O-Pa, at the end of the 1980s. In the subsequent decades, Alan has managed to catapult himself at the upper echelon of influential Haitian artists owing to his prowess as a songwriter and his vocal ability. The voice of Nat King Cole, the great American singer, was once described as “incandescent,” “liquid, soothing” with an “impeccable pitch.” Alan’s voice has similar qualities. When most people think about Alan, it is highly likely that his voice is the first thing that rushes to their mind.
For close to thirty years, Alan has established himself as the crooner par excellence in the HMI when it comes to songs that appeals to one’s heart. In other words, it could be argued that he has practically cornered the market as far as love songs are concerned. The subject of love has been talked, written, and sung about since times immemorial. No one individual could fully capture the full range of emotions that love could elicit in his or her written works or songs. But in his many love songs both with Zin and in his solo albums, Alan has expressed some of the most poignant emotions that love or one’s feelings for a woman could engender. Even among those who have a way with words, they could find inspiration in the lyrics of many of Alan’s songs. Those who lack this facility with words, thereby limiting their capacity to convey what they are feeling vis-à-vis a loved one could use his songs as a guide. In case this attempt still fails to help some individuals summoning words or phrases that share the same poignancy as some of Alan’s songs, they would be forgiven if they go about pilfering his oeuvre. In so doing, they would likely end up impressing their girlfriend or their love interest.
It begs the question then, which songs could offer inspiration to a wordsmith, could be a guide or could be pilfered by someone who often struggles to find the right words to express how he feels about a significant other? Alan has a large discography, which includes songs that he has written, co-written or collaborated with his gifted father; the choice is, therefore, plentiful. For instance, Je Femen is a song in which Alan is showing his devotion to his “girl.” This devotion is encapsulated in the following lines: Kote ou pase kote ou vire mwen la…M’ap swiv ou je femen; another great song is Can’t Do This to Me. In this song, Alan is lamenting about being abandoned by someone he loves. One of the most resonant lines in this song are as follows: Ou kite gou bouch ou sou bouch mwen…Ou kite fom ko w nan bra mwen. Jwen is another gem. In it, Alan is expressing his joy about finding the love of his life. These sentiments are expressed in the first three lines of the song: Mezanmi!
In it, Alan is expressing his joy about finding the love of his life. These sentiments are expressed in the first three lines of the song: Mezanmi! Pwoche pi pre pou m’ rakonte n’…Yon Koze sou yon bel bebe…Vini pou m’di n’ kijan mwen jwenn. 365 Jou is another powerful ballad in which Alan is conveying how strongly he feels about a woman that he is dating. Those feelings are summoned in those lines: Pa yon lot famn kife kem bat fo…Pa gon lot famn ki fem pa fem pa pe lan mo. Je T’aimerais Toujours is a classic song. As indicated in the title, Alan is expressing his undying love to a woman who does not want to commit to a relationship. Those sentiments are conveyed in those following lines: Je t’aimerai toujours même dans ton absence…Je t’aimerai toujours même dans ma souffrance. Famn Dous Mwen can only be described as sublime. One cannot listen to it while remaining still. In the tune, Alan is telling his sweetheart that despite all the heartaches, she will always be the love of his life. Those emotions are captured in those following lines: Malgre tout sak pase mwen pap janm ka bliye w…Se ou sel mwen renmen ou menm sel fanm dous mwen. Last but not least, Ou Se finds Alan as his poetic best. It is one of those Alan’s tunes that one can listen to or dance to; in the song, Alan seeks to answer one the most pressing questions in a relationship: How do you feel about me? Alan does not hold back. Those following lines capture the depth of his feelings for his romantic interest: Ou se tout sa’m m’envi, Ou se sel maladi’w…To cap it off: Ou se, ou se, limit chimen mwen.
Those seven songs are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. They only provide a mere glimpse of the lyrical contents in Alan’s musical catalog that have entertained, inspired and captivated his legion of fans for more than a quarter of a century. It would be quite a challenge for one to survey his musical output and not find something to one’s liking owing to the richness and the menu of choices.
When asked during the interview, how would he like to be remembered. Without much hesitation, Alan said as someone who is “humble.” With that much talent, Alan does not have to toot his own horns. His musical legacy is already secured. In any examination of outstanding Haitian artists, he will among those who would be mentioned in the first paragraph. But despite his accomplishments, he has yet to slow down. He continues to perform regularly. After almost thirty years in the HMI, his passion for music remains as strong as ever. After all, making music has never been merely a hobby for Alan. Rather, it has been and continues to be his métier, which is why he has produced so many songs that have enthralled his fans for a generation
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