On any given night, a Haitian singer somewhere is transforming a crowded dance floor into a courting session, cajoling fans of konpa to move to an easygoing beat.
But for one day during Haitian Heritage Month in May, at a downtown Miami park, the horns and keyboards blare louder than usual, the beat speeds up and the homegrown soundtrack that has helped defined a nation becomes one big-band dance party.
“It’s like a big old family reunion,” said Ernst Dominique Deant, 41, of Plantation, a konpa fanatic who has been attending the annual festivities with friends for more than a decade.
Welcome to the Haitian Compas Festival, the biggest gathering of Haitian music fans in South Florida — and perhaps anywhere outside of Haiti.
The annual festival, which began on Virginia Beach and has been ranked among the Best in Live Entertainment events by Billboard Magazine, celebrates its 15th edition Saturday with 10 bands and four DJs at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, 301 Biscayne Blvd.
Over the years, the crowd has become as diversified as the music organizers Rodney Noel and Jean-Michel Cerenord showcase with their inclusion of nontraditional konpa bands in the annual lineup. “We do this to add a different flavor,” Noel said.
And while Saturday’s festival will include traditional crowd pleasers like Carimi, Djakout #1 and NuLook, some new faces will join the mix. They include Haiti Carnival crowd favorite Ambiance from the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haitien, and banned carnival band Brothers Posse, whose music is a return to the old school rap and raga that a lot of young Haitians enjoy.
Brothers Posse founder and singer Don Kato made international headlines earlier this year when Haiti’s government-sponsored carnival committee refused to invite him to participate in its pre-Lenten bacchanal because his song, Aloral, criticized President Michel Martelly and his government as being “all about talk.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve performed in Miami, and I think the fans are ready to hear from me,” said Kato, whose lyrics have become part of the political and social discourse in Haiti, propelling his popularity further. “We have to bring the diaspora into the conversation about the conditions of the country.”
But politics aside, the festival is also about showing the versatility of Haitian music. And that’s exactly what world music songstress Emeline Michel says she hopes to do with a performance that will feature folkloric beats and lots of drums.
“I am representing that other segment of Haitian music,” Michel said with a laugh.
This is Michel’s third trip to South Florida in recent months. She recently headlined Big Night in Little Haiti, and unveiled her much-anticipated CD, Quintessence, at Moca Café and Lounge in North Miami, which Noel and Cerenord co-own.
While hits such as Pa Gen Manti Nan Sa (There is no Lie in This) borrow from traditional konpa beats, Michel is better known for merging traditional Haitian rhythms with other worldly beats to create a sound pulsating enough to have 10,000 Japanese music fans jumping to their feet, as was recently the case.
On Wednesday, she teamed up with NuLook crooner Arly Lariviere at Moca Café to do an unplugged session for a walkup to the festival. These more intimate performances are part of the pre- and after-parties that have also defined Compas Fest weekend.
“When it comes to politics, we have a lot of question marks. And when everything else in our country doesn’t make sense, music is the one common ground where we agree, we have something solid,” Michel said. “Music is the most important flag we can wave.”
And Compas Fest plays a huge role in that, said promoter Mia Lopez Flynn, who will host a live broadcast of the festival on Sakapfet.com with Haiti-based radio personality Carel Pedre.
“The Haitian Compas Festival serves as a platform where musicians and bands are tested,” she said. “Your success at the Compas festival either propels you or buries you.”
DJ Griot, a local personality on 99 JAMZ-WEDR who will host the event, said the festival encompasses the ongoing struggle to have Haitian music become as mainstream as other forms of music, and to showcase Haiti in a more positive light.
“The music,” he said, “connects you more than anything else.”
This year’s festival falls on one of Haiti’s most patriotic of holidays — Haiti Flag Day.
“Our people are very patriotic when it comes to their flag, and I guarantee, you are going to see a different kind of show,” said Noel. Referring to the colors of the Haitian flag, he added, “It’s going to be a blue and red show this year.
Haitian singer Emeline Michel. Photo: Gregory Castillo