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Arts & Culture, Special Reports

Haitian Music Industry’s Dirty Secret: It Doesn’t Exist

Antoine Rossini “Ti Manno” Jean Baptiste

By Vania Andre

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in 2013 and published on Haitian Beatz

In the long history of Haitian music, there’s been no figure more singular than Antoine Rossini “Ti Manno” Jean Baptiste was born in Gonaives in 1953, known as singer, guitar player, keyboard player, and percussionist. In the early 70’s he migrated to Boston and with Ricot Mazarin formed Volo Volo of Boston. In 1978, after touring with DP Express, he decided to take residence in Port-Au-Prince, Ti Manno became one of Haiti’s founding fathers of conscious music.

It was during his time as lead singer of legendary konpa band Gemini All Stars that Baptiste solidified his legacy as not only a great konpa musician, but also one of Haiti’s leading social activists.

The musical genre Konpa originated in the Caribbean island of Haiti and was popularized in the 1950s by Haitian jazz artist Nemours Jean-Baptiste. Although konpa is often described simply as a modern form of meringue, the music style is a much more complicated one that mirrors the island’s rich, diverse cultural history.

Konpa fuses African rhythms and European ballroom dance to produce a music style reflective of the people’s French, African, indigenous Tainos and Spanish background. Sung over a constant two-step beat, the songs are typically recorded in French or Haitian Creole, a language based largely on 18th century French with influences from Portuguese, Spanish, English, Taíno, and West African languages.

“Ti Manno” used the music of his people to expose the injustices of their world. By 32, he was national icon. His lyrics not only examine the vices and lack of progress in Haiti, but also shed light on the human condition, African unity, corruption and discrimination. His music was so thought provoking and dynamic that he was forced to leave his country at the height of the Duvalier regime.

Described as a musical prophet by Rene Davis, general manager/owner of New York based band, Karizma…“Ti Manno’s music propelled the musician to the same level of stardom as Michael Jackson’s. Nearly twenty years later after his death his music, says Davis, “continues to resonate with millions of Haitians and French Caribbeans.”

Yet, despite the popularity and successful career, at the time of his death Baptiste was penniless and eventually buried in a county-owned cemetery.

As tragic as Baptiste’s ending is, it’s not one that is unheard of. Several celebrities have died bankrupt whether due to mismanagement of finances or drug abuse. Baptiste circumstances at the time of his death, however, were quite different. He wasn’t penniless because of a rock star lifestyle or drugs.

Haiti’s most recognized and influential musician died penniless because he was an artist in the Haitian Music Industry (HMI).

“The Haitian music industry is fictitious. It doesn’t exist,” Melissa Bernier, a Haitian-American entertainment lawyer, said. “It’s a figment of everyone’s imagination.”

A struggling industry

Moses St. Louis, co-founder of HaitianBeatz.com, the premier destination for Haitian music and news, is planning a one-day conference in May 2014 in Miami, to address the state of the HMI, which he describes as a “struggling industry.”

In the early days of the HMI, musicians put together bands that would play merengue songs in French. However, during the 1950s, musicians began to slow down the tempo and incorporate instruments not typically used in merengue such as the conga and floor tom. In July 26, 1955, Nemours created the rhythm that was to become the “Konpa” in forming his own musical group, Conjunto International. As the genre of Konpa began to distinguish itself from merengue, several bands emerged out of Haiti with the sole purpose of simply spreading the music through the country for people to enjoy.

Nemours Jean-Baptiste

However, as times advanced, the lack of political stability, socioeconomic disadvantages and stagnant business climate in Haiti prevented the HMI to progress to a level where they could sustain the industry outside of its grassroots nature. In essence, the HMI was developed only in the community, but was virtually nonexistent on paper.

With few record labels, copyright laws and no system of protecting and ensuring artists’ rights, the HMI evolved into a stagnant arena with no profitability for artists.

Decades later, musicians in the industry continue to struggle with the industry’s fragile infrastructure and piracy issues.

“We have a lot of talented people, but the industry is struggling because there isn’t anywhere for young upcoming artists to go,” St. Louis said. “All of our top artists … T-Vice, Carimi (has since been debanded), Zenglen, Klass, Nulook, Djakout # 1, all of these guys are in their 30s some going into their late 40s. In the American music industry, you see top artists across all age ranges. There’s none of that in the HMI.”

There isn’t a strong foundation for the HMI to exist on, John Felipe of Me Two, an upcoming konpa duo, said. There are few media outlets, historically no major record labels and no real avenues for our music to reach new heights. For a few select artists, their only option for spreading their music is through investors, who have essentially taken up the role of “record labels” in Haiti.

For Felipe, breaking into the industry has been frustrating. With a background in marketing and business law, Me Two knows how the music business in general is supposed to work.

We’re dealing with people who don’t know anything about how business is conducted in the music industry, said Felipe. However, the lack of business know-how isn’t the main stressor for Felipe — financing his music career is.

As an independent artist, you either have to fund yourself or find a silent investor, which is the route for many artists in the HMI. There are a few major investors in Florida and New York who fund HMI artists, he said.

These investors have virtually taken the place of record labels in the HMI and essentially operate as distributors in the konpa market, offering no legal protection to the artists. In many instances, an artist will record an album, which he’ll sell to an investor for a set price (for example, $30,000). In exchange for the money, the artist gives up publishing royalties and rights, and the investor distributes the albums at a profit.

“The people in power don’t have a clue about what they’re doing,” Felipe said. This puts artists at a disadvantage because they’re not adequately compensated for their work and have no way to rectify any wrongdoings.

Konpa band Klass. Photo Credit; Garry Pierre-Pierre

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) is a nonprofit that represents the global recording industry and promotes copyright enforcement in developing countries. Now that technology is more readily available in emerging markets such as in Latin America and Brazil, record labels are beginning to tap their vast potential.

Everyone wants a share of a growing market, but the problem arises when there are poor copyright conditions, Edgar Berger, president of Sony Music Entertainment said in IFPI’s annual digital music report.

Copyright infringement and piracy are major concerns for artists in the HMI and the music industry in general. The difference, however, is that in Haiti little can be done to those who don’t respect the process.

Haiti’s justice system has long been plagued by politicization, corruption, resource shortages and a lack of transparency; because of this, people are left with few resources when seeking avenues to address an injustice. In a country troubled with corruption, finding justice for a broken music contract is low on the priority list for officials.

While there are international treaties that attempt to ensure copyright laws, laws differ from country to country and are only enforced with the help of the government. The main international copyright treaties are the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) and the Berne Convention.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is an international agreement on copyright issues that was first accepted in Berne, Switzerland in 1886.

The treaty requires its signatories to recognize the copyright works of their member nations’ artists and authors. The treaty created a universal system to address copyright issues among its member nations. One of the main tenets of the Berne Convention is that each of the member nations provides automatic protection for works first published in other countries of the Berne union and for unpublished works whose authors are citizens of or resident in those participating countries.

Each country a part of the Berne Convention must guarantee to artists who are nationals of other member countries the rights that its own laws grants its citizens. The UCC was adopted in Geneva in 1952. Developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the UCC was created to offer an alternative for those who had problems with aspects of the Berne Convention.

The way it works in the world market is that bands are set up like businesses, Bernier said. You have owners and people who own stock in it, with money coming to the band members through the corporation.

“That is nonexistent in the HMI,” she said. “The main problem is that there’s no type of legal structure. Secondly, there’s no set structure by which for the industry to operate. Contracts aren’t always honored, and when they aren’t, there’s no system they can go through to have their problems rectified. It’s literally a free for all.”

Doing it the right way

J-Perry

“J-Perry and his whole camp, they’re the exception,” Bernier said. In 2011 Jonathan Perry (aka J-Perry) emerged onto the HMI scene with his hit single “Dekole.” The song became a national hit overnight, seeing more airplay on Haitian radio stations than any other song before.

At only 24 years old, he proved to be one of Haiti’s most promising artists with a future on the international stage.

He signed to Baoli Records, Haiti’s first and only indie record label in 2011. “They do business legitimately,” Bernier said.

When Carl-Frédéric Berhmann started Baoli Records in 2006, he understood the need for a business like his. There were no real labels in Haiti doing a label’s job, according to Serge “Power Surge” Turnier, head producer for Baoli Records.

Groups like Carimi are taking matters into their own hands, with the new Digital ways of distributing music, like iTunes, CDbaby, Amazons, Carimi’s “Invasion” album was ranked as the number one selling album in the world music category and was ranked 37th worldwide on iTunes. This is a big step for this struggling industry, with bands/artists, able to reap the fruits of their hard labour.

The labels in Haiti pay an amount up front for an artist’s work then sell it for themselves.

“That’s a fuck you deal for the artist,” Turnier said. “Artists don’t get anything … royalties, rights, nothing.”

It’s these types of deals that are taking place in the HMI, he said. That’s not normal, and it’s been going on for years. The Baoli Records team understands the concept of a label and what its responsibilities are to the artist. The other labels are just people with a lot of money who buy the master and have no idea what to do with them.

Under J-Perry’s “360” contract with Baoli Records, the label takes care of everything; they produce his album, facilitate deals with major sponsors and handle his promotions. The label also distributes his records to international markets. Baoli Records secured license deals for J-Perry’s music in Columbia, France and most recently, Israel through Warner Music Group.

“The J-Perry concept is very commercial,” Turnier said. “It’s very young, pop, worldly … but, it’s still authentic. We keep that Haitian vibe in it.”

The Baoli Records team has been keeping busy. In 2012 they signed deals with Zumba Fitness and Sony. Zumba Fitness signed a deal with Baoli Records to feature.

J-Perry’s “Dekole” for their mega mix, which will be distributed to their markets globally.
“It’s a lot of work,” Turnier says. We deal with a lot of people in the industry who look down at doing business with Haitians. “So we make sure we’re persistent, professional and self-sufficient.”

That’s the key to their success, Turnier said — their self-sufficiency.

“If the Haitian government enforces copyright laws and with the help of the international royalty collection agencies, we’re going to be the first people doing publishing and licensing in Haiti. That is huge; that is big,” Turnier said in a March 2012 interview. “It’s going to change lives; it’s going to change kids’ lives, artists’ lives. Now in Haiti, an artist will not die poor.”

While the HMI may not be able to support all of it’s artists, a number of Haitian musicians have found promise in U.S.-based labels. For example, roots singer Paul Beaubrun, son of Boukman Eksperyans legends, Manzè and Lòlò, signed to Ropeadope Records in April 2018. 

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Jul. 18, 2018

3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Haitian Music Industry’s Dirty Secret: It Doesn’t Exist”

  1. Yanique Edmond-Pierre says:

    Overall the music history was well presented. However, the description of our language, kreyol, was not correct. The root of our language is West African, not French. Our grammar and syntax is African, while our vocabulary is influenced by French, and secondarily by other languages such as Spanish. It does a disservice to our African identity to perpetuate this French artificial linguistic myth.

  2. Wallace says:

    Great article.

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