By Garry Pierre-Pierre
The first time I saw a band perform live was at my cousin Marilyn’s wedding, where Les Frères Déjean de Pétion Ville played the night away.
I was a sophomore in high school, trying to assimilate into American culture and was more interested in pop music than konpa. I remember that day mostly because of the band’s horn section. It was tight and seemed to be the backbone of every song.
A few years later, Les Frères Déjean listened to a shady promoter who promised them that he had secured a gig for them in Montreal, even though some of the members were not documented. The idea went as bad as it sounded, musicians were detained and, after their release, the group disbanded.
But one of the saxophonists and back-up singers, Isnard Douby, regrouped the members and renamed it System Band. Their first album, Banm Passé, came out in 1980 and it was an homage to their trials and tribulations they had endured.
Its cover was captivating, as it featured the musicians jumping out of a spaceship. The indigo blue art cover gave it a futuristic shine. Little did we know that this band would stick around for more than three decades dominating the charts. That album was an harbinger of what was to come.
In the song Epreuve, they opened up right away with…
Lem tap pase mizè, kotem te we zanmi.
Lem tap pase matir kote zanmi te ye, mwen di onè, zanmi pa repon.
O lem blayi konpa m a té, tout zanmi rele, yo met te kokobe, yo kanpe danse.
In English: When I was struggling, where were my friends? When I was going through hard times, where were my friends? I knocked on their doors, these friends didn’t answer. But when I drop my konpa, my friends cheered. Even the disabled ones got up to dance.
To be sure, System Band was controversial. Its songs, while popular, made polite Haitian society blush. Even in the most thoughtful of songs, you can count on Douby to delve into the prohibitive zone. For example, in Epreuve, Douby chimes in “Talatane, ou mem ki sot an ro, saw wè.” Meaning: Bloomers, you who came from upstairs, what did you see.” That sexual innuendo breaks the seriousness out of the song while making others uncomfortable.
That album would catapult System Band to a cosmic level and the band would remain the symbol and embodiment of a growing Haitian diaspora. System band had a cultish following, including me who has studied its lyrics and musical arrangements. The band’s live performances created a market for pirated CDs that are still sought after by fans today.
Tout moun jwenn
Two weeks ago, Douby passed away after a long battle with Covid-19. Douby, whose baritone voice was as nasal as that of Bob Dylan, was a towering figure in the Haitian Music Industry. While no one dared to copy his singing style because only he could pull it off, System Band’s hard konpa is still the same genre that is being copied by all the top bands.
Djakout, Nu Look, Zenglen, Hangout, Disip and on and on are basically System Band knockoffs without Douby. This is a well-known and accepted truism. I’ve always said that you cannot like or appreciate System Band, but if you like konpa, you’ve got to love System Band. While many konpa bands dispatched their horn sections eons ago, System Band doubled down and made its horn section central to its music. That gave it an edge over the other bands playing the hard konpa genre.
System Band and Douby set the lexicon and the popular sayings both in Haiti and the diaspora. Kreyol sayings pervade our mind without realizing that they were made popular by System Band. Think of such gems as:
- Jan l passé l passé
- Mwen menm mwen ou we la
- Manman, montrem papa m non
- Wé pa wè, rendez-vous pou 4 hr kan mem
- Sim mouri, ou kon sak tuyem pedale pedale
System Band, at its core, was no bubble gum band. It was Konpa Rèd, or hardcore konpa, featuring a strong backline section that swirls like a tornado with Douby taking over the rest. System was a formulaic band. In short, it had a system. Its core albums featured a little nostalgic ditty about Haiti, a song with a Vodou introduction or peppered with songs from Vodou ceremonies. Each CD has a love song or a hit on lesbianism, a category of fans who were also attracted to the band. System showed the love back by making sure that lesbians are as welcomed to their parties as any other fans.
In the words of Douby, “tout n” — there was something for everyone. You never left a System Band performance unsatisfied. They were professional and would play large venues as well as intimate settings like Brasserie Creole in Cambria Heights, where System played regularly as one of the house bands.
An enduring love for the culture
Over the years, my musical taste has evolved to appreciate Jazz and Blues. When I was in college, I gravitated to World Music and good music in general. But my assimilation into American culture did not rob me of my love for Haitian music, particularly its konpa.
When I launched the Haitian Times, I doubled down on Haitian music and organized a major summer festival that we plan on bringing back in the post Covid-19 world. To me it was important that our music be celebrated and appreciated first by us and then by our friends. I also felt an obligation to keep the torch alive for the next generation.
I believed Douby shared these sentiments. In the mid-2000s, he tried to bring new voices to the band and recruited Dabenz, a promising young talent whom I believe didn’t understand the institution that he was being handed the helm of.
Dabenz left after a few years and Douby stayed on and delighted fans the world over. Maestro, you left us a bit too soon than we had wished. But I know wherever you are, you have that mischievous smile on your face and are cracking jokes, as you often do in a crowd, small and large.
I thank you for the memories and for the body of work that you’ve left behind. I will forever remain a fan and continue to study the songs and come up with new interpretations of your lyrics, which is in the DNA of Haitian popular music.
My journey into konpa music might’ve begun in Queens during that festive summer wedding in 1979, but my infatuation for the genre has evolved into a solid, enduring love.
Pale avèm. Mezanmi, men moun yo.
That was a bonus. I just couldn’t resist uttering a few more Douby-isms.