BROOKLYN—Before launching The Haitian Times in 1999, I dreamt of our community organizing a large Haitian music festival and participating in style in the annual West Indian American Carnival Parade to showcase the beauty of our culture. It was an idea that I clung to dearly, as such Haitian festivals were a rarity growing up, even in the New York area. Our large gatherings consisted mostly of protest marches against the Duvalier dictatorship. That bothered me tremendously.
After establishing The Haitian Times, which aimed to center the culture and engage with the new generation oblivious to the dictatorship in Haiti, our team set out to make the festival a reality, believing that our ancestral land’s rich culture and history would be appealing if they experienced it.
I knew it was a Herculean task that the three people running the newspaper at that time could not pull off alone. I reached out to prominent media outlets in the community asking for their collaboration and was summarily dismissed. One popular radio station owner called me “the man with big ideas.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. In his mind, I was a Willy Loman character, a person living in fantasy.
Undaunted, we plowed through and created Kreyolfest. We spent more than 15 years dazzling thousands of revelers each year at Brooklyn’s Wingate Park, until the shifting priorities of sponsors made it difficult to continue. We paused in 2018 with the intention of restarting the following year. Covid-19 had other ideas.
Time to banboché, responsibly, as we spread out
This year, we’re back! But we’ve buried Kreyolfest and birthed Banboch Kreyol to take the festival to new heights by co-producing the event with Live Nation at the Coney Island Amphitheater, a spectacular venue along the boardwalk in the world-renowned iconic park.
With the new venue, we intend to expand the experience of the event, giving it the air of a picnic where people can play cards, dominoes and other board games as they savor Haiti’s culinary delights. Haitian American painters will showcase their work. A diverse line up that features a few of Haiti’s musical genres — konpa, Haitian pop, rasin, or roots, and rara, our folk music – serves as the nexus of the daylong event.
The choice of the venue is intentional, as our goal is to attract not only Haitians, but also non-Haitians looking for new experiences. People who are curious about Haiti but don’t want to venture into the heart of Flatbush in Brooklyn or Southeast Queens, the city’s heaviest Haitian American strongholds.
As we continue our acculturation and political ascendency as a community, we need to broaden our reach. Our culture is one of the richest in the Caribbean with our paintings, arts and crafts sold throughout the region and well beyond.
We can sell our rich and diverse culture, political and social upheaval notwithstanding. Doing so will help us broaden the pie because our restaurants, musicians and artists struggle mightily to eke out a living even though their offering is desirable.
My second adventure in this space is armed with wisdom, experience and analytical skills learned in the last couple of years that allows us to provide our audience with a unique proposition based on their feedback.
I would be remiss if I don’t admit to a high level of nervousness, being less than a week away. I fret about the turnout and wonder whether Banboch Kreyol is indeed just my obsession or the audience’s desire. Our goal is to test many hypotheses come Sunday, May 28, and explore the sustainability of the festival.
One thing I learned from the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University, which I completed a year ago in May, is that your ideas suck. You should not cling to them and you should be prepared to ditch them, if they’re not feasible. I hope to work tirelessly to make sure Banboch Kreyol does not suck.
Elevating our standards, community & culture
This time our approach is to be collaborative by working with event and music promoters to bring norms and standards to the community to help professionalize an industry that has long struggled to reach new markets.
Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald wrote a piece last week, “The World is Listening to Afrobeats. Why is Konpa still struggling to crossover?”
Jackie, a dear friend and colleague, outlined some of the reasons and interviewed me for the article. She took her readers back to the 1970s, when the community was emerging and Tabou Combo was criticized for its style of music. Below are my comments:
“Tabou was the band of my childhood. They used to call it Tabou, the music of teenagers because it appealed to a younger generation,” Garry Pierre-Pierre, founder and publisher of the Haitian Times, recalled while reciting the lyrics from one of the group’s songs that defined their approach to konpa. “They said, ‘We’re not going to play music for a minority when there are other people who are thirsty for music.’ ”
Pierre-Pierre said the current security crisis in Haiti means that people are not traveling to the country and exploring the culture. As a result, “it’s hard for the culture and the music to really develop and grow and be accepted,” he said.
“The other thing is, I think these konpa artists, up until recently, were totally disorganized and unprofessional. Dealing with it, there was no standard,” said Pierre-Pierre, who for years organized Kreyolfest in New York, featuring some of the biggest names in Haitian music. “They didn’t have methods and practices that were industry accepted. So other promoters just didn’t want to be bothered with them.”
The article continues…
Over the years, roots music, which found popularity in the 1990s with politically-minded Boukman Eskperyans, continues to draw an eclectic diverse crowd. Also, followers of the Haitian music scene have been paying close attention to rabòday, the infectious dance-friendly beat reminiscent of the Afrobeats sound that’s emerging out of Haiti’s ghettos and popular among today’s youths.
“It’s a mélange and we are hoping that festival-goers get something out of it,” Pierre-Pierre said. “It’s a small step and we are doing a small thing where there’s a whole lot of other things that need to be done to get to a level beyond the Haitian market.”
As Kreyolfest was about to become the second largest cultural event outside of Miami in the U.S., the media colleagues I reached out to back in 2000 tried to undermine the festival. Events were scheduled the day before our festival that year and the day after another year. We soldiered on and delivered the best experience to our audience that we could.
Most of these outlets did not fare well in the digital age. They’ve become irrelevant as social media pulled away the audience, like a magnet attracted to steel, and has yet to relinquish its grip. But The Haitian Times is still here, celebrating nearly 25 years of existence. We’re still experimenting with ways to center our culture and engage with the next generation.
Excited and looking forward to attending this event!
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