New York Times, May 23, 198

Two Countries, 3 Languages And the Konpa Sound


As Caribbean music seeks an international audience, small and large changes set in. Friday's binational, trilingual double bill at the Ritz -with Tabou Combo, from Haiti, and Wilfrido Vargas and his band, from the Dominican Republic - offered a progress report from the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti and the Dominican Republic share. Both the Dominican merengue and the Haitian compas direct (each country's dominant dance music) now allow interludes of English-language rapping, funk drumming and various Caribbean styles; both are reaching out to cities like New York and Miami, and to each other. At the end of the concert, the two groups performed together.

Tabou Combo, Haiti's pre-eminent band since it was formed in the late 1960's, has developed a new showmanship while performing for more non-Haitian listeners in the past few years. Band members wear clothes fit for music videos - striped jerseys with leather pants, glittery uniforms with epaulets a la Sergeant Pepper -and sometimes dance with their instruments in unison, while a smoke machine gusts or a strobe light flashes now and then. What's old hat on MTV is a metamorphosis for Tabou Combo, whose members used to just stand and play while dancers looked mostly at each other.

The music has added keyboard lines (in the bell-like synthesizer tones heard on dance floors around the world) atop the intertwining guitars that link Haitian compas to West African soukous; the band also has an auxiliary horn section, which was tucked away Friday on stage right. And as a novelty, band members can toss off thumb-popping funk basslines, sing in Spanish (rather than Creole French), shout ''Everybody say yeah!'' in English or slip into the syncopations of zouk from Martinique and Guadeloupe, currently giving Tabou Combo competition in the French Caribbean.

But while the trappings change, Tabou Combo has stayed with the compas - a rippling, insinuating midtempo rhythm that has listeners dancing before they know it. A song might use some other style as a lead-in, but it soon shifts into compas, as if to say that when the novelties wear off, the compas will still be there.

Dominican bands have cultivated their theatricality to put across the merengue's often satirical or topical lyrics, and Mr. Vargas's band uses its four male singers (along with Mr. Vargas on trumpet and vocals) as a chorus line and a slapstick troupe. For the first part of Friday's set, however, Mr. Vargas had geared the music to tourists, with an odd (but meticulously arranged) rumba-polka-hora-twist-funk-rock medley and a rendition of the Bob Seger hit ''We've Got Tonight.'' But listeners became dancers when the band settled into merengue - a peppy, galloping rhythm carried by Latin percussion and laced with circular saxophone phrases that outdo Philip Glass - and started playing Mr. Vargas's hits, including a merengue-rap. The band was using its precision to connect with the audience as well as entertain it.

The shared encore - one Tabou Combo song, one Vargas song and a rap coda - was tilted rhythmically toward compas, the two bands' common ground; Mr. Vargas has had Caribbean hits with Spanish translations of Tabou Combo and zouk songs. Afterward, Mr. Vargas declared ''a friendship'' across the island of Hispaniola. Sometimes internationalism begins at home.