Miami Herald (May 14, 2004)

Haitian-music legends bring swinging sound to town

By Jacqueline Charles

Their infectious, indigenous rhythms have been rocking audiences from Japan to Panama, Paris to Miami for more than three decades. They are the original ambassadors of Haitian music, having played almost every major world festival, taking compas music (pronounced like its Haitian Creole spelling, kon-pa) where Celia Cruz took salsa.

Not bad for a group of teenage heartthrobs from Port-au-Prince's once-tony Petionville neighborhood, who began their careers in 1968 as Los Incognitos as a way to meet girls. Thirty-five years later, those teenagers, now known as Tabou Combo, are still revving it up with their big band sound, commanding couples to sweep dance floors in a tight trance as they sashay to a timed, 4/4 beat. ''The music speaks for itself," said composer and band member Yvon "Kapi" Andre, explaining the group's popularity and longevity. "We go to Japan and they don't understand a word we are saying. But they show up in huge numbers to hear the band based on the reputation we built. The music is appealing." And powerful, riveting.

Just ask Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Carlos Santana. After hearing the uptempo grooves of the Tabou Combo's hit, Mabouya, the Latin-rock guitarist bought the rights, re-christened the song as Foo Foo and placed it on his Shaman album two years ago. A year later, Santana introduced the song and its electrifying instrumentals to more than 100 million television viewers when he performed it as his finale at the 2003 Super Bowl halftime show.

"It was the highest mark of stardom for Tabou Combo, for Haitians in general," Andre said in a telephone interview from his South Miami-Dade County home. "Imagine, Carlos Santana performing a Haitian song. Everyone knew it was a Tabou Combo song. That was the ultimate compliment."

And there have been many in the band's 35 years of live performances, including the time when 4,800 fans packed Paris' La Salle Wagram nightclub, setting a new attendance record, to hear the band; or when, on their first tour of Panama, all the employees in the '"work permit" office stopped working to ask for autographs.

"They told us the same thing happened to Julio Iglesias and Celia Cruz," said Andre, 51, one of the four original band members still with the group that has been based in New York since the late '60s. The other original performers are lead singer Roger M. "Shoubou" Eugene, rhythm-guitar player Jean-Claude Jean, and singer Yves "Fanfan" Joseph.

This weekend tens of thousands of fans may once again be asking for autographs when the band performs at downtown Miami's Bicentennial Park at the sixth annual Haitian Compas Festival. The show will feature 10 of the most popular names in compas music including Konpa Kreyol, Carimi, T-Vice, Top Vice, Djakout Mizik and Nu-Look among others, as they commemorate 200 years of Haitian Independence and Haitian Flag Day.

But for old-school compas converts, Tabou Combo and its dozen musicians playing percussions, guitars and horns will steal the show. No pre-recorded or sequenced tracks, here, just compas fused with a little bit of funk and some rock 'n' roll. "Tabou Combo is the blueprint of showmanship," said John "Papa Jube" Altino, a New York City producer and vice president of S.O.B's restaurant-club in New York. "Going to see Tabou Combo is like going to see Usher or James Brown. You are watching a show. With a lot of younger groups there is no show. Just a couple of guys standing behind the keyboard; everyone is dancing but no one is looking at the band."

That showmanship, said Altino, is one of the key ingredients to the band's longevity, and has allowed them to achieve some limited, mainstream success with cameos in American movies and singles like New York City. Sung in Creole, Spanish and English, the 1974 song brought the group international acclaims after it reached No. 1 on the European chart and received regular radio rotation.

"They have done it all, movies, Hollywood," Altino said of Tabou Combo. "Not even Wyclef Jean has that kind of reputation. To me, Tabou Combo is the all-time blueprint of what Haitian music should have followed."