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30 Years of Konpa Music and Still Reigning

Tabou Combo’s recent performance to a packed house at New York’s S.O.B.’S proved just why the band is the reigning Haitian Konpa band.  Promoting their new album, "360°," which icidently is their finest album since 1990’s "Zap-Zap," Tabou Combo (T. C.) was clearly in top form and sounded reinvigorated by its mix of youthful and veteran musicians. On the crowded stage, lead singer Roger Eugene exchanged vocals with Yves Fan Fan Joseph and the two could be seen grinning and even slapping hi-fives as the crowd unanimously grooved to their tunes.

The twelve member band was tight and emitted a deep Pan-Carribean sound which stretched the musical boundaries of Konpa by mixing in elements of zouk, mérengué, salsa, rock, soukous, samba and biguine. But T.C. really shined that night when they stepped the tempo up a notch and introduced the soon-to-be hits, "Sa Li Ye" and "Mako," to the enthralled dancefloor crowd. This wealth of new material, along with the group’s commitment to promote their Konpa world-wide, convinces me that Konpa music is alive and positioned to make inroads into the next millenium.

Speaking with the band’s spokesperson, Yves Joseph, in S.O.B.’S basement before the show, I gained insight into how the legendary group views itself in light of its recent accomplishments and their "360°" release. Yves explained, "We consider ourselves more of a Carribean band than exclusively a Haitian band, so we try and raise whatever musical influence that floats into the Carribean... its truly Pan-Carribean - Salsa, Konpa, R&B, ‘cause of all the new generation musicians that we have. There is also soukous [in the sound,] which is basically African - you cannot separate the Carribean from Africa musically. So in this album I think we just kind of respected everyone’s opinion [in the group] and everyone’s feelings in this album."

I was curious to learn from Yves what elements made "360°" unique from the groups’ previous albums, and his overall impressions of the public’s response their latest project. Yves replied, "As far as the response of the new album is concerned, it’s been fanstastic. Since [our 1990 album,] "ZAP-ZAP," we haven’t had such a large response as with "360°." From my own perspective, the only thing we did different in this album is that we made it a little faster than the other ones - that’s the difference. We went to Martinique to record this album, which has 12 songs on it, [and] we had just two songs written before we left New York to go to Martinique. They were "Sa Li Ye" and "Mako," and that’s basically it... we had some ideas but we didn’t have a direction that we wanted to take with this album. But what we intended to do different was make it more groovy, you know a lot of grooves so people can dance to it a little bit more... and it came out to be a success."

When I explained to Yves that the only other T.C. album I owned was their all-time classic hit, "8th Sacrement," he smiled and shed light on the parralels to that classic recording’s success and the recent "360°." "8eme Sacrement," is basically a live and spontaneous band recording. That was our first number one hit. You see, every successful album that Tabou Combo has made has not been premeditated... its like we [just]did something and then [the public’s] response was great." Urging Yves to elaborate and explain a bit more about the timing and group dynamics behind "8th Sacrement," and the group’s early years. Yves continued, "we are talking about 1974, and we had just arrived in the United States beginning in 1970. We were all young and just playing music... whatever we felt like saying we just said it in the music... there was no real construction of songs, we just got on stage and started singing." But what was it about "8th Sacrement" that made it a hit and a million copy seller?

Yves: "This is basically what 8eme Sacrement is, [a youthful statement from a group having just migrated to the U.S.], and the song, "New York City," that made a number one hit, was [really] a nostalgic song... we had just left Haiti and come to New York City where people have no feeling for each other... everyone is doing their own business, and we just wanted to go back [home] to Haiti. New York was a hard place for us, we weren’t used to that type of atmosphere, and so that’s what we sang in the song. It all fell into a Disco rhythm that was in style at that time, and a big French label, Barclay, in Paris... they loved it, and they [decided] "New York City " this will be a hit for the Summer of 1974, and they made a hit out of it." Surpisingly, the song was only a huge hit in throughout Europe, and made few inroads into the United States. According to Yves, "T.C. has never had a hit in the United States... well, locally [in Brooklyn and the Carribean communities] we have... we are known in small pockets everywhere, we’ve been around for 30 years, so I think everyone who is into the music business, especially into the world music, has heard once of Tabou Combo."

The unique this about T.C. is that it pushes the boundaries and continues to be innovative despite its veteran status. But in Haiti, there has been competition from the "nouvelle generation," or the younger generation Haitian bands. Yves believes that "They are just translating our ideas in a more modern way, putting their two cents into it, but these are basically our ideas, and when its been carried on by newer, fresher musicians, it tends to attract a younger crowd than if we were doing it by ourselves, but these are basically our ideas that they translate. We don’t get too far behind them, you know, in fact, we feel a little bit ahead, because we listen to whatever modern music is out there.. as far as Rap is concerned, we’ve been doing Rap since 1978... "voulez-vous vouk les joues" and we had a trombone player, an American guy named Dr. Black, and he did all the rap.

So Rap is no thing strange with us. But remakes, we never did remakes. Beacause what is going on now is all remakes... we always write our own songs... (like the Fugees)... whatever I achieve doing my own music, you know I think I should be proud of it 100% because I it is my own inspiration, it my own word, its my own feeling, and wherever it takes me I should be happy.  But I won’t be satisfied selling my own music and repeat my own words and that kind of stuff. But you know everone has their way to make money, and measure success... to each his own... it seems as though the New Generation of musicians right now they are of short inspiration, then guys like Marvin Gaye, they have done all the work, and now it is time to harvest (what’s been done)... short of inspiration. So I always admire somebody who is singing his own thing.

We have just been playing local gigs and stuff. What we consider a tour will be like in March, March 15 we will play in Antewerp, in Belgium. And then we are basically we are going to stay here until the half of the summer, and then in July, we will go on our 30th Anniversary Tour, which starts June 20th in New York...Best Western we will do July 11th in Boston, July 18th in New Jersey, June 25th we going to do it in Miami, and eventually we will do it in Haiti...

Martinique and Guadeloupeare going to be in August... in November we are going to do a grand concert in Paris, so I can’t say that we have started a tour aleady, just local stuff right now and we are getting our stuff together and staying here most of the time because we want to be playing in New York ‘cause the Haitian public’s complaining that the past couple of years we’ve been like evading them, so we will spend most of the summer here.