By Garry Pierre-Pierre
On at least two occasions when I was in high school, I spent the Fourth of July at a park in Oakland, NJ where Tabou Combo was the main act for thousands of Panamanians. Panama celebrates its independence on the fourth as well, a legacy of U.S. occupation so it was a big deal.
Why would Tabou Combo be playing for Panamanians? Tabou is, at least in my time, one of Panama’s favorite bands. The love affair was mutual as Tabou wrote a song about the Central American nation of 4.5 million people called, “Panama Querida,” or Dear Panama.
I never asked any of my Panamanian friends why the infatuation with Tabou because after all, that was my band and their funk-infused genre of konpa resonated with my Haitian American sensibilities.
In college, I introduced my African American friends to Tabou and they loved the band. The beats were familiar enough to be appreciated, but the sound was new enough to be exciting. By the time I left college, my musical taste had evolved to Jazz, Blues and World Music, and I kind of lost touch with the Haitian music scene.
Tenors such as Tabou had taken a backseat to the so-called New Generation style, made popular by Zin, Phantoms, Lakol and Papash, to name a few. But a decade later, Tabou would reemerge on the scene stronger than ever.
Two weeks ago, when I learned about the death of one of its founders and leaders, Herman Nau, I felt a mixture of sadness and happiness. It was sad that Herman, whose presence behind the drum set loomed large for decades, was no longer with us. But I was happy at the decades of great memories that Herman and his bandmates had given me, a life of great music and camaraderie.
Herman left Tabou for a while when he became Minister of Youth and Sports during the second Jean Bertrand Aristide administration. Soon enough, he regained his role with the band, touring and performing without missing a beat.
I got to know many of the band members personally as Tabou became a staple of Kreyolfest, The Haitian Times signature event in Brooklyn, which attracted thousands of revelers at Wingate Park. Tabou’s presence in the lineup was also a financial move for us, getting a major act at a local price and no expenses.
Herman Nau would be the last stage manager of Kreyolfest, which we shuttered in 2017.
Can Haitian music reach the zenith, like Tabou did?
Yves Joseph, the band maestro, told me that one of the successes of the band was that they simply refused to play music exclusively for a Haitian audience when music is universally understood. Joseph reasoned that if they’re playing good music, others would naturally gravitate toward it and enjoy the beat while at it. This sounds just right.
But unfortunately, that advice, which Tabou sang about, was not embraced by the next generation of musicians. Tabou was a pioneer in many ways, but no other Haitian band reached their zenith and kept atop of the mountain for as long and as consistently as Tabou did.
I never understood why, besides CaRiMi’s tepid attempt at reaching non-Haitian audiences, there were very few others that even tried to broaden their audience by fusing Haitian music with some other genres. I believe that Roody Roodboy is trying but being in Haiti has been a liability as the country has been in virtual lockdown, long before Covid-19 would become part of our daily lexicon.
These days, the Haitian Music Industry – a misnomer for some – is on crutches. The first blow was the digitization of music, and the way music is produced and distributed. The old days of a producer buying an album from a band at a set price are over. Singles are the “it” thing once again and entire albums less necessary. DJs have become less and less relevant as streaming platforms have emerged as the dominant way people consume music.
The second strike against the so-called industry is structural to begin with, and what little foundation there was got decimated during Covid-19 pandemic. Haitian music is dance music at its best, sensual and sexual. Festivals and large outdoor events never caught on all that much. Bands prefer to play at small venues that can provide the intimacy that everyone seeks.
How will the HMI emerge from the pandemic? Can a band or a new sound emerge to broaden the appeal of Haitian music, particularly in the diaspora where Haitian culture is interwoven with black culture writ large. Can the industry be structured or is it going to remain a challenge like herding cats?
These pertinent questions need to be addressed with as much urgency as we put into our political impasse. I’ve always said that our culture, particularly our music, is our best brand ambassador. Fix the music industry and make that a roadmap for the social, political and economic systems that have failed the country since it became a republic in 1804.
A year after we launched the Haitian Times, we threw our hat into the HMI ring, first sponsoring Djakout Mizik on the Parkway during the Labor Day parade. The next year we started Kreyolfest, which remained the largest Haitian cultural gathering in the Northeast United States until we stopped it a few years ago.
That experience, like most adventures in Haitian society, was bittersweet. We brought on a certain level of professionalism, discipline and a respect for the paying audience. Our events started on time and bands in the lineup rarely did not show up, as is common in that industry.
But the progress we anticipated never came. The musicians were not business minded and their managers were, at times, less equipped to be impresarios. Many of them could better serve the band by being equipment managers. No one makes money. It was a losing enterprise and still is.
Ironically enough, the week that Herman Nau passed – Konpa, Haiti’s pop music – was celebrating its 66th anniversary. To honor Herman and the living legends among us, let’s make sure that the Haitian Music Industry is really an industry and not a facsimile of one.
As Roger M. Eugene, Tabou’s lead singer, belts out in the mega hit “Lakay,” Nou Bouke. We’re Tired.
Let’s infuse some new energy and blood in the HMI.