“Konbit”: Jonathan Demme’s Celebration of Haitian Music

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While some may remember Jonathan Demme as the director and producer of such films as Silence of the Lambs, Swimming to Cambodia, Married to the Mob and other box office hits, I’m reminded of a musical compilation he produced, called Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti (1989).

At the time, there weren’t very many Haitian albums being released, so Konbit really stood out. Demme featured cuts by top Haitian groups like Ensemble Nemours Jean-Baptiste, Tabou Combo, along with the Mini All Stars, and the Magnum Band. This guy knew his stuff. In fact, Lou Reed even ranked Konbit as one of his favorite albums of that year. So did I, along with a lot of other fans.

That was back in 1989, when Haitian music was alive and well in Los Angeles. It wasn’t unusual to see Tabou Combo, Coupé Cloué, Boukman Eksperyans, and Rara Machine perform regularly at West Los Angeles’s world music shrine, the Music Machine, which was located then on Pico Boulevard just east of Centinela.

Haiti’s history is a complicated one. During the mid-to-late 1700s, many French farmers in Haiti profited from exports of sugar, rum, and tobacco sent back home. Trade with the Caribbean colony was so lucrative that it helped finance Napoleonic France’s backing of the American Revolution. But as the number of slaves came to outnumber the colonists, it was only a matter of time before the slaves revolted. The uprising of 1804 resulted in a major defeat for France and Haiti’s subsequent independence as a nation. Sadly, Haiti never returned to its previously prosperous state. Instead, its history has since been marked by incompetent and corrupt rule, as it has declined in status to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The ouster of dictator-kleptocrat Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier by yet another popular revolt in 1986 caused even further destabilization.

Musicians in Labadee, Haiti. (Photo by Ricardo’s Photography)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Demme’s love affair with Haiti began with his love of Haitian art and paintings. But he was so struck by the sounds he heard while on an art collecting trip in 1986 that he returned the following year, this time for the music. Demme traveled throughout Haiti, accompanied by young musicians like Voodoo activists Les Frerès Parents, Aboudja, and Manno Charlemagne (the Bob Marley of Haiti). Everywhere they went, the group found itself under the watchful eye of the military police.

In the liner notes for Konbit, Demme mentions the widespread poverty and illiteracy that he encountered, and the fear of the tonton macoute, who enforced the Duvalierist regime’s laws by way of torture. During his time in Haiti, there was even an abortive coup against the government by mutinous army troops. Demme characterized the national mood at the time as “a situation of perpetual fear, insecurity, and profound struggle that defines the ongoing lifestyle of the overwhelming majority of Haitian people who remain trapped in the turmoil of their tortured homeland.”

The irony of it all is that the joyful music of Haiti is born from such poverty and misery. I suspect this was part of why Demme was so fascinated by the culture. A true cinéaste engagé, he also directed two documentary about the country: Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) and The Agronomist (2004). The latter recounts the story of the slain radio journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Demme also had plans to shoot another documentary about Haiti’s recovery and rebuilding from the 2010 earthquake. He had told reporters, “The resiliency of the Haitian people is going to keep them going. And, you know, I still absurdly have this great belief that it’s just not over for the Haitians.”

Check out the anthemic Haitian classic, “Rit Komèsyal,” by the Ensemble Nemours Jean-Baptiste. It’s the first track on Konbit.

Photo (above) of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, by Blue Skyz Studio.