“In Port-au-Prince, where a big-band was called a ‘jazz’, a group of musicians in Rue de l’Enterrement led by saxophonist Nemours Jean-Baptiste created a ‘compas direct’ in July 1955”, explains Ralph Boncy, the Haitian cultural activist and musicologist. Maestro Nemours Jean-Baptiste’s rhythm became an instant hit, with many spin-off bands adding their own touches. The rhythm spread throughout the French Antilles, developing from its polite ballroom roots into a highly popular dance beat which often had political lyrics, and which became a vital part of everyday life. “Kompa is a sincere, lively music with something to say” explains the Martinican jazz pianist Mario Canonge, “it’s the music of people who have suffered a long time, and who are still suffering”. With new variations played out from Montreal to Miami by musicians of the diaspora, Kompa embodies the tenacious resistance and vitality of a people wracked by violence, poverty, cyclones, dictatorships and endless cycles of political crisis. While the harmonies are simple, the rhythms are incredibly intricate and reflect Haiti’s deepest cultural roots. “Kompa resonates with the sound of Africa” says Haitian troubadour Beethova Obas.
Kompa was the dominant musical style in the Francophone Caribbean before being dethroned by zouk in the 1980s. “We all caught this Haitian fever: for 20 years that’s all we listened to”, says Jacob Desvarieux, the long-time bandleader of Kassav'. The dominance of Kompa was one of the reasons Desvarieux founded his Martinican super-group in 1979, inventing Zouk, another up-tempo Caribbean musical mix. Kompa was derived from the ‘Meringue’ style (not to be confused with the ‘Merengue’ of neighbouring Dominican Republic). With roots in French contradance, Kompa emerged in Haiti in the 18th century as a syncopated tropical dance music par excellence, becoming the definitive national urban music and the lifeblood of the diaspora.
Kompa is a musical genre derived from African and European roots. It is a fusion of zouk, reggae, rock, salsa, and other styles of caribbean music. Kompa is also known as Haitian Méringue popularized in the mid-1950s by the sax and guitar player Nemours Jean Baptiste, a Haitian jazz artist influenced by the musical styling of Cuba and the Dominican Republic.