Rodney Noel was promoting artists in the Haitian music scene back in the 1990s when he and his business partner realized something was missing in Miami’s cultural landscape.
There were outdoor festivals promoting Jamaica, Brazil and Colombia, but “we didn’t have anything that said, ‘Haitian,’ ” Noel recalled.
Sure, there was a racine festival showcasing Haitian roots and culture. But racine, a genre influenced by Vodou rituals and peppered with political commentary, wasn’t what was packing dance floors week after week in Miami. It was Compas, or konpa in Haitian-Kreyòl.
The infectious dance music that defined Haiti’s street carnivals was surging in popularity and singers, crooning in Kreyòl, were cajoling fans to move to a 4/4 beat on their feet as musicians played horns, keyboards and percussion.
Noel and his partner, Jean Michel Cerenord, decided to take a gamble and staged the first-ever Haitian Compas Festival on a rocky Virginia Key Beach. It was 1998.
A quarter of a century later, that gamble is still paying off for Noel and Cecibon Productions. The Haitian Compas Festival, which turns 25 years old this year, is marking the milestone Saturday, May 20th, by returning to one of the places where its popularity first soared, Bayfront Park in downtown Miami.
Along with a lineup of DJs and artists that represent konpa, this year’s show will also feature Grammy-nominated Boukman Eksperyans, which popularized Haitians roots music, and Haitian-American and rapper from South Florida, Kodak Black.
One of the largest Caribbean events in the United States, the festival has not only become a place to celebrate Haitian music and culture, but also a stage for bands to shine.
Singer Richard Cave, who began his singing career with the popular boy band CaRiMi before launching his own group, KAI in 2016, recalls choosing the festival as the debut for his reinvention.
“This festival is the beginning of everything. It’s the beginning of my career, personally,” he said, noting performing both as one-third of CaRiMi and now as KAI.
Among this year’s select line-up of performers, Cave said the festival has become “a reference.”
“People come to it from everywhere; people know how it is and all of the media surround it,” he said.
Noel agrees. Though the festival always takes place the weekend closest to Haitian Flag Day, which is May 18, people start strolling into Miami days in advance so that they can attend the various parties or bals leading up to the big event.
There, fans get a chance to be up close with their favorite artists as they dance to the gentle groove of konpa, before artists take the stage to perform before thousands.
“The festival is like a rendezvous for the diaspora from around the world to meet every May in Miami,” said Noel.
Even before May became known as Haitian Heritage Month, there was May 18, the day commemorating the founding of Haiti’s bi-color blue and red flag. A symbol of unity and strength, it unites Haitians despite their political allegiances, hues or the region of the Caribbean nation they or their families may hail from.
This is what he and Cerenord were striving for, Noel said, when they decided to stage an outdoor Miami festival and headline it with the name “Haitian.”
“The festival sells Haitian pride,” he said. “Haitian Americans have taken this festival as one of their own; 75% of the audience is millennial or young people. This is one of the weekends where they really embrace their Haitian roots and they come to dance konpa. Konpa is our music and we cannot leave it behind.”
Despite influencing other festivals and Haitian Flag Day musical celebrations, Compas Fest’s success hasn’t come easy.
“I didn’t think we were going to reach 25 years,” Noel said.
Finding sponsorship is always a challenge, and so too has been getting artists out of Haiti. In 2017, Haiti-based rapper Marinad 007 had one of the biggest hits in the country but the artist had neither a birth certificate nor a Haitian passport to travel to the United States, much less a U.S. visa in order to make his international debut with his catchy, socially-conscious song “Madan Papa.” (The singer, who composed the song to the dance-friendly rabòday beat emerging in Haiti’s ghettos, finally made it to the Compas Festival stage thanks to multiple trips to Port-au-Prince by Noel and Haitian radio station owner Patrick Moussignac, who personally stepped in to help the artist from Haiti’s Cité Soleil slum fulfill his dream of playing on an American stage.)
The festival also has had various homes: Bayfront Park, Bicentennial Park, Sun Life Stadium, (now Hard Rock), Mana Wynwood and most recently, Miramar Regional Park Amphitheater. The festival has been both a one-day and two-day event and even dealt with copycats and competing events.
Through all of its ups and downs, including the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a hiatus because large crowds could not gather, the festival survived. Like konpa, it has had to weather changing tides in the U.S., and political and violent storms in Haiti where the country’s recurring crises continue to affect everything, including the music.
Honoring Living Legends
In October, the Haitian Music Industry (also known as the HMI) lost one of its most talented recording artists, Michael “Mikaben” Benjamin, during a performance on stage in Paris. In April, the industry lost pioneering composer and performer, Daniel Larivière, co-founder with Giordany Joseph of the legendary band Tropicana Orchestra of Haiti. Larivière is the father of Arly Larivière, founder of NuLook and one of konpa’s most sought after performers.
Such deaths have been a reminder to Noel about the importance of honoring artists and public figures while they are still alive. Thus, as part of this year’s celebration, there is an invitation-only 25th Anniversary Hall of Fame and Living Legend VIP opening ceremony on Thursday, May 18, to honor stewards of the culture as well as local Haitian Americans who have contributed to the community’s growth during the past 50 years of Haitian migration here.
A handful of artists will be presented with the Living Legend Award for their contributions to Haitian music: Alan Cave; percussionist Jean Herard “Ritchie” Richard of Klass; T-Vice’s Reynaldo and Roberto Martino; Disip’s Gasman “Gazzman Couleur” Pierre; jazz artists Joël and Mushy Widmaier; Theodore “Lolo” Beaubrun and Marjorie Beaubrun of Boukman Eksperyans and Lionel Benjamin Sr., singer and father of MikaBen.
The event will be followed by a performance by KAI at Hollywood Live, 2333 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, that is open to the public.
“We are losing our legends,” said Noel, recalling how shortly after they held a similar event on the 20th anniversary, well-known artists with internationally renowned Tabou Combo and System Band passed on. “We don’t want our 25th anniversary to go without giving another group of individuals their flowers and praise.”
Noel and Cerenord have booked one of South Beach’s largest venues, Club M2 Miami at 1235 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, for their popular “All Black” kickoff party on Friday, May 19, featuring NuLook, KAI, Oswald, Kadilak and Bedjine and Team Lobey. On Saturday, the after party will feature NuLook and Baky at Hollywood Live again and on Sunday, KLASS, Oswald and Rutshelle will make the “All White Affair” lineup at Backyard in Las Olas.
“I cannot predict the next 25 years,” said Noel, “but I’m hoping to make this one of the most memorable.”
If you go:
What: Haitian Compas Festival
When: Doors open at 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Cost: Tickets start at $25; children under 12 are free
For a list of Haitian Compas Festival events and for tickets go to www.haitiancompasfestival.com. Tickets can also be purchased at eventbrite.com