Friday Night Fetes: Big Night in Little Haiti

Words by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Luis Olazabal

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Visit Northeast 2nd Avenue in Miami’s Little Haiti on any Friday, and you’re bound to hear the sounds of kompas hanging in the air. If it happens to be the third Friday of the month, follow those sounds and you may just stumble onto some of the genre’s greats performing live.

The venue you’d find yourself at would be the Little Haiti Cultural Center, a four-year-old complex centered around a spacious, open-air courtyard that doubles as a welcoming music venue. For the last two years and change, the monthly concert series Big Night in Little Haiti has brought some of the biggest names in Kreyol music, from Tabou Combo to T-Vice, to this attractive space in the heart of Miami’s Haitian community.

The events are always free and early, beginning at 6 and wrapping up by 10. Rotating art shows at the cultural center’s gallery and fried fish and griot from local eatery Leela’s Restaurant provide additional draws, while DJ Mack of Internet radio station Mizikpam.com holds down the sound between acts. Although afterparties are held at neighboring establishments, things typically climax with a procession led by local band Rara Lakay that spills out of the venue and onto nearby streets, picking up pedestrians as it goes along.

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Rara Lakay

Big Night in Little Haiti emerged after The Rhythm Foundation, a non-profit organization which specializes in producing international music events in the Miami area, produced a benefit concert following 2010’s devastating earthquake.

“We thought why does it have to be a tragedy to have [people come out for] Haitian music?,” says Rhythm Foundation director Laura Quinlan. “Why not for the beauty and vitality of music itself?”

After securing funding from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a Miami-based philanthropic organization, Big Night in Little Haiti launched in March 2011, with Viernes Culturales and Second Saturdays Art Walk, monthly events which encourage visitors to explore Miami’s Little Havana and Wynwood neighborhoods, as models. It didn’t take long for the series to find its audience.

“Everybody that heard about it got it right away,” Quinlan says. “We didn’t have to push it on anybody. At first, we would promote it, but now, people just know to come on third Fridays.” Virtually all of Haitian kompas‘ big draws have performed, along with artists from other Francophone genres and countries, too.

“Every Big Night its packed,” says Marie Vickles, art coordinator for the Little Haiti Cultural Center. “The weather doesn’t even affect people. It used to be if it rained people woudn’t come. Now, people come on the second Friday and ask if anything is going on. And we have to say ‘Not tonight, come back next week.’ It’s been pretty awesome.”

Set, festively, on Haitian Flag Day in the middle of Haitian Heritage Month, May’s edition featured long-running kompas legends Skah Shah #1 with locally-based leaders of the new school X-Tassy, and the launch of Discover Haiti, an exhibition of accessories and furnishings produced by artisans in Haiti and sold through Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation.

This month’s Big Night in Little Haiti falls on Friday June 21, the summer solstice and Fete de la Musique, a holiday of sorts in the Francophone world celebrating live music. Tabou Combo returns for a Legends of Kompas concert in July, while August brings a marching band culture clash of sorts, with Brazilian maracatu featuring Estrela Brilhante, and Haitian rara from Rara Lakay.

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Click the photo below (or here) to scroll through a gallery of Luis Olazabal’s photo highlights from the last few months of Big Night in Little Haiti. Big Night in Little Haiti was recently featured in an episode of syndicated radio program Afropop Worldwide. Listen here:

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