Not many bands even make it to one decade. But Tabou Combo, the Rolling Stones of Haitian konpa, have been rocking a deep Caribbean groove for 44 years. They’ve adapted disco, funk and hip-hop to their now-classic konpa sound, sung out on AIDS, the travails of immigration, the earthquake — and the perpetual appeal of dance and the opposite sex.
“We are old-school, but we were able to keep up with the times,” says Yvon “Kapi” Andre, a percussionist and songwriter who started Tabou with several high school classmates in 1968 in Petionville, in their home city of Port-au-Prince. “Our audience is composed mostly of people from our age group, but the younger people know about Tabou Combo because they grew up listening to the music. So that helps us keep up with the times.”
Tabou Combo plays Big Night in Little Haiti on Friday, and is probably the most famous name to perform at the monthly music and family event at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, which celebrated its first anniversary last month.
“They’re so major,” says Laura Quinlan, director of the Rhythm Foundation, which produces Big Night. “I didn’t dare to think Tabou Combo would play at Big Night, because our budgets are not so big. But Tabou Combo and a lot of Haitian groups really appreciate the opportunity to give back to the community in a family-friendly venue.”
The popular, free event, which features live Haitian music, art exhibits and children’s art activities, fills the Cultural Center’s outdoor plaza with a diverse crowd, giving Haitian bands exposure beyond their traditional, insular nightclub circuit.
This month’s edition also features a visit from the Miami Art Museum Soundbomb bus and the opening night of Sustainatopia, an international conference and festival that promotes social, financial and environmental sustainability.
Tabou’s music has been heavily influenced by the world beyond Haiti. Just two years after the group’s launch, the original members moved to New York City and Canada for college, re-forming in New York in 1971 (for a time the new lineup included guitarist Dadou Pasquet, whose prowess with Miami’s Magnum Band has made him a legend in Haitian musical circles). Tabou’s young musicians had been part of a new generation that played a slimmed-down, modernized version of konpa, a swaying, rhythmic, big-band dance music that evolved in the 1950s.
From their new home base in New York City, they absorbed disco (they had a hit in France in 1975 with disco-style New York City), funk (James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire are big influences) and jazz, and toured in Japan, Africa and Europe. But they also stayed in touch with their roots. One of their biggest hits with the Haitian diaspora was Kote Moun Yo (Where are the People?), attacking the prejudicial notion that Haitians were the source of the AIDS epidemic, on the 1989 album Aux Antilles.
In another song, Life in Exile, Andre, who now lives in Miami, pointed a finger at exiled Haitian leaders who no longer had the power of life and death. “These people think they are God, they can kill people just by snapping their fingers,” he says. “Then when they have to leave Haiti they find life in exile is not so easy. We do care about what is happening in Haiti, and we do address those questions.”
But above all else, a Tabou Combo concert is a dance party with driving, intricate percussion, brassy horns, sensuous konpa and wild rara, the Haitian carnival music, mixed with jazzy piano and West African style guitars.
One of the group’s latest hits is Mabouya, a Creole word for lizard, which compares a woman’s dancing to the animated wiggle of a lizard’s hips. And Tabou has a new album featuring a song that Andre’s son, a student at the Boston Conservatory of Music, sings in English.
“This album keeps us moving forward,” Andre says. “So it’s a blessing.”
SOURCE: The Miami Herald of Friday, April 20, 2012.