"Music is the Haitian soul": a primer on Haiti's unstoppable music scene

While Haiti has endured great tragedy throughout its history, what's also endured is the relentless strength of its music community.

LISTEN: 13 banging tracks from Haiti and beyond

Creole rapper Princess Eud

Haiti's tragedies are are well-documented: the dictatorships, the cholera outbreak, the devastating earthquake. What's missing from the story that gets told about the country is the way in which Haiti thrives.

"Music is the Haitian soul," says Canadian journalist and DJ Étienne Côté-Paluck. It's the sign of life that exists beneath the tragedy.

(Courtesy of Productions Emergent)

Since Étienne's move from Montreal to Haiti 5 years ago, he's been devouring Haitian sounds. As a true fan, he's the perfect guide through Haiti's thriving music scene — and how the sounds of the past feed the songs of the present. From the traditional voodoo rhythms that paved the way, to the new Creole rap by Port-au-Prince millennials, here is an introduction to the sounds blasting out of buses, at protests and in clubs all over Haiti.

Hear more of Étienne's mix in tonight's episode of Interrupt This Program. 8:30/9pm NT.

Can you walk us through your mix? How would you describe it and what can listeners expect to hear on it?

These songs are part of a mix I played at Radio Boukman [a Port-au-Prince community radio station] in Cité-Soleil last August.

For a Haitian crowd, this [would be considered] a mix of pop and underground party music. The Haitian music scene is pretty vibrant and has almost always been.

The mix isn't all Haitian artists, though. Only four of them are Haitians — PMG doing Rap Creole, and two Raboday songs by Vag Lavi and Tony Mix. There is also a track by Montreal-based Haitian rapper Fwonte.

Apart from that, there are some Latin and African songs, rap and electronic music. But even though most of the songs are new and haven't been played by Haitian DJs yet, those types of rap and electronic musics are widely popular in Haiti. When I get on Haitian radio, people don't want to only hear what they're used to hearing; they also want to discover new and up-and-coming sounds from all over the world.

A brief history of Haitian pop music

For those unfamiliar with Haitian music, can you share some of its history?

There are three big music scenes in Haiti. First, there is the Compas music, which was at the top of the charts between the 1950s and 1970s, featuring bands of 10–15 musicians with brass sections and everything.

Later, in the 1980s, a new form of Compas called "Compas Love" took over, with keyboards replacing the brass section. The older style of Compas (with brass) has been tagged "Compas Direct" since then.

Compas is still widely popular, but Rap Creole has been taking over youngsters in the last 20 years. And since more than half of the population is under 25, the Rap Creole scene is now probably bigger than the Compas scene.

A third genre emerged in the mid-2000s. It's called "Raboday". This genre is inspired by the Rasin music genre that took the traditional Haitian rhythms and mixed it with pop-rock music (Boukman Eksperyans is an example of this), mostly since the 1980s. The Raboday is one of those traditional rhythms, one that is closer to the western world's 4/4 dance rhythm. A young artist used that rhythm in 2003-2004 and created the first proper Haitian dance music. The genre then became widely popular at dance parties all around the country, and is now probably the the most played genre through Haiti, even though there are fewer tracks getting out each year than Rap or Compas.

Music for survival

I noticed a commonality amongst the songs — energy! There's so much vibrancy to the music, regardless of the song topic. Were there any moments when that vibrancy dimmed, or any events that threatened to kill the music, so to speak?

Music has always been there. It never left.

The only time when we didn't hear music on the radio at all was in the first few days after the earthquake. The people were shocked; the city was calmer than ever. After the first 24–48 hours — which were focused on emergencies — I've never seen Haitians so disciplined. There were many people walking through the city, in line on the sidewalks (cars were scattered in the first week, and roads were blocked with abandoned cars, etc). It was the opposite of the chaos described by the foreign press.

I've never seen people be so kind to one another. It was so touching to see people with really different backgrounds helping each other.

Even though Haiti is a community-based society (as opposed to a state-structured society), I've never seen people be so kind to one another. It was so touching to see people with really different backgrounds helping each other. During that first week, big speakers weren't out on the streets and the radio programming was about sending messages of help and find missing people, not that much about music. But even then, the first night after the earthquake, people were chanting religious songs (Christian and Voodoo) throughout the city.

After a week or two, the radio started to play more and more music, and it gradually came back as usual. I wouldn't say that music was gone, but it was not appropriate to sing and dance upbeat songs at that time.

How did Haiti's musicians respond to the devastation of 2010?

A few weeks later, came the Raboday hit "Anba dekonb" ("under the rubble"), which was the biggest music hit of 2010 in Haiti. It was a hard song for a wounded population, listing the names of the artists who died and the ones who survived, and then saying (with a witty tone), "I won't walk for you, but I won't walk on you either." (meaning something like: I'm not going to help you, but I won't harm you either). At first, the reaction was harsh; not everyone was pleased with it. But the song was played over and over and it finally became one of the biggest Raboday hits of all time. Like I said, Haitian music, especially Raboday and Carnival music, is often about politics and the news of the country.

Musical Haiti's next generation

Could you tell us more about the roots of Raboday music? Where did it come from and who were some of the artists that paved the way for this new sound?

Raboday comes from the Rasin (Creole for "roots", pronounced rah-seen) music genre. Rasin is a genre updating traditional Voodoo rhythms into the [modern] pop-rock world. The biggest original Rasin band today is called Boukman Eksperyans. They made the genre what it is today and are still active, which is not the case for all the icons that put the genre at the top of the charts in the 80s.


Their latest Carnaval hit is widely popular and is still played over and over on the radio, more than 6 months after the carnival, which is unusual.

As in Raboday, Rasin talks a lot about the society and its problems. Raboday is a subgenre in Rasin music (based on a specific voodoo rhythm of the same name), but Vwadezil took it to the next level incorporating this rhythm into electronic music in 2003-2004.

Port-au-Prince's Freshla — the "King of Raboday," shares the roots of the new sound taking over Haiti. "Raboday is a style that's been here WAY before Christopher Columbus came to America. It was a street music." 0:58

Haiti obviously has a thriving musical ecosystem of its own, in its own language. Are artists tempted to reach broader audiences by rapping in English of French?

It's pretty normal for Creole speakers to rap in their tongue language. You couldn't ask a Francophone rap group in Montreal to rap in English easily, even if most of them also speak English. French is still present in Haiti, but the real language of the people is Creole.

I always say this to rappers in Haiti who want to rap in French or English to get more popular outside the country: your rap technique and flow are always better in Creole.