Boston Globe, July 10, 1998


By Elijah Wald, Globe Correspondent

"Welcome to the musical world of Tabou Combo, a world of diversity and musical pleasure. From the island of Haiti to the streets of New York City. Some of you may choose to relax and enjoy, others may want to set the roof on fire.''

The English-language prologue that begins Tabou Combo's most recent album, "360 degrees'' (Crossover), is immediately followed by a horn-heavy blast of what sounds very much like salsa, but with Creole lyrics. The rest of the disc generally keeps the Caribbean flavor, with hot piano, guitar, and horn lines, but also ranges into soul and even rap. All of this is an example of the Tabou Combo's savvy appeal. The 12-piece band, which comes to Revere's Wonderland Ballroom tomorrow, is the defining group in modern compas music, but isn't satisfied to remain a secret of the Haitian community. Tabou Combo has sold millions of records in Europe, and recent tours include Japan, Denmark, and the English-speaking Caribbean.

"We've always been influenced by all different kinds of music," says singer Yves Joseph, speaking from his home in New Jersey. "Because our goal is to be international. We've always been criticized by the purists of compas music, saying that Tabou Combo is like more of a rock-compas band, and this is exactly what we want, to put us into the international map.'' Tabou Combo has been in the forefront of Haitian music for 30 years. "We started in 1968, 1967,"Joseph says. "At that time there was some sort of musical revolution going on, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and all the youth in Haiti were really influenced by that kind of music. Before, there were a lot of big bands like the Duke Ellington and the Count Basie band, and then [in the 1960s] everybody picked up a guitar.

"When we started, the name was Los Incognitos, because we wanted to give it a name that didn't sound too Haitian, we wanted to be different. Then, we wanted to participate in a band contest and we couldn't participate under that name because it didn't sound Haitian, so we called it Tabou, to be more in a roots sense."

The band's sound evolved along with its name. "We started out playing bossa nova, we played Frank Sinatra," Joseph says. "Then we found our identity and started playing basic compas music. When you start, you're always looking for some avenue, some way to go to find your identity, so you pick up every little bit of everything to fit into your repertoire. Then we started creating our own songs, and they were compas because, for Haitians, compas is our music. So nobody can play it better than we do."

Joseph traces the roots of compas to the merengue music of the neighboring Dominican Republic, explaining that it started around 1955 as a slower variation on the Spanish-language style. He says that Tabou Combo's own approach was further modified when the band members immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, though their reasons for coming over had nothing to do with music.

"In Haiti at that time, it would have been almost inconceivable to say that you're gonna be a professional musician," Joseph explains. "Every parent wanted you to be a lawyer or doctor or politician, and music really didn't have its place. So when things started to become serious and we started playing for money, our parents chose to send us to the United States and Canada to continue our studies, and in 1970 the band broke up.''

As it happened, though, when several band members arrived in New York they found a Haitian community starved for sounds from home. Soon Tabou Combo was back together, playing on weekends and blending its music with new pop stylings. "If you pick up a Tabou Combo record from 1974, '75, you're gonna listen to a lot of James Brown,'"Joseph says. "Because we were influenced very much by the James Brown era. To tell the truth, we always follow like a parallel track with the American music. For example, we didn't have horns at first; horns came around Earth, Wind and Fire and the Commodores era."

The group was still playing only for the Haitian community, but then, in 1975, they started hearing surprising news from friends in Europe. "We were in New York, playing every Saturday at different clubs and church basements, that kind of stuff, and some Haitians in Europe, they start sending us letters saying, 'Hey, guys I'm hearing you all over the radio. I mean, white people's radio! What's going on?'

''The song on the radio was called "New York City," sung in a mix of French Creole, Spanish, and English, and it became a pan-European hit. Since then, Tabou Combo has considered itself an international band. The group has not even played in Haiti since 1976. Now, though, it is planning to go home for a 30th-anniversary show. It just did a similar show in New York, and the Boston appearance will boast guest appearances by two founding members, joining for the anniversary celebration.

Not that Tabou Combo is looking backward. "Sure, sometimes you feel like, `How long am I gonna do these things?' "Joseph says. "But it's really hard to turn your back away from success. And it is not hard for us to keep the energy, because we've always been playing, therefore it's like a training. We play 50 weeks out of 52, without stopping, and we love what we do. When you go onstage and you have a crowd in front of you, it's very hard not to follow that energy, not to move the crowd, not to give it your best."