Their unapologetic hardcore sound was born in the 1980s, catering to the whiskey and rum drinking set, while gaining momentum in the nightclubs patronized by South Florida’s burgeoning Haitian music fans.
Thirty-five years later, System Band is still making fans dance with its signature Creole-fused raps as it delivers its trademark bass and heavy dose of konpa. Now with a new album and the return of some familiar faces, the group is ready, it says, to show that it can battle with the younger generation of Haitian artists as it prepares to perform at the 17th annual Haitian Compas Festival Saturday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens.
“It’s going to be crazy,” said singer Dabenz Chery. “We’ve got a beautiful show prepared.”
The largest Haitian music festival outside of Haiti, the festival is a big draw for not just those who enjoy the flag-waving rhythms of Haiti but the island’s culture and food, all of which will be in abundance this year with a few surprises. The event always coincides with May 18, the day the first Haitian flag was adopted in 1803.
This year, in addition to celebrating the flag’s blue and red panels, Compas Fest will also commemorate the 60th anniversary of konpa or compas direct. Created in 1955 by Nemours Jean-Baptiste and sometimes referred to as the modern méringue, the music continues to win a following among younger Haitians. This year’s festival also takes place three months before Haiti hosts the Caribbean’s largest cultural and artistic event, CARIFESTA, Aug. 21st to 30th in Port-au-Prince and four other Haitian cities.
But on Saturday, the focus will be on Haitian culture as 10 of the country’s biggest bands take the stage. They include performances by Djkaout #1, T-Vice, CaRiMi, Team Lobey, Nu Look, Klass, Disip, Gabel and Kreyol-La. And then there is System Band.
“We are among the originals,” said singer James Douze, adding that bands continue to borrow from System’s style. And while the band’s sound is still recognizable, he said, it has modernized. “When we play konpa, we want you to enjoy the ’90s but also the 2000s.”
Journalist Ed Lozama, who follows the konpa music scene and hosts EdLoz Live on Radio One 90.1 FM in Port-Au-Prince, said a number of legendary bands like System have returned to the music scene in recent years, releasing new albums and touring. Recalling the band’s heyday in Miami, where it had a huge following, Lozama said he’s looking forward to seeing them at Compas Fest.
“You cannot not dance when System is playing,” he said. “System Band is going to deliver some heavy dose of konpa that even the young people will find themselves dancing to.”
Ernst Vincent, one of the original band members, doesn’t disagree.
Vincent said the band’s signature sound is still relevant and “nobody can stay away from us. Some even had to copy us.”
Festival co-founder Rodney Noel said while the concert is the main event, there are many activities catering to everyone’s musical needs.
It begins with the Friday Madness Kick-off party at Moca Cafe in North Miami featuring Kreyol La and Djakout#1 and the All Black Affair at Club Space in downtown Miami that same evening. Sunday is the Soirée Rouge et Blanc at Café Iguana in Pembroke Pines with Djakout #1, System Band and Nu Look. Monday night at Moca Cafe the party continues with Klass and DJ 5Etwal.
“It’s the longest running event in the Haitian community and we love highlighting the best of Haiti, from its food to its art,” said Noel, hinting at the possibility of a surprise guest or two at this year’s celebration. “The Haitian Compas Festival weekend has it all.”