Words by Adolf Alzuphar
Port-au-Prince was founded in 1706 by a Frenchman named Charlies Burnier, the Marquis de Larnage, wearing a powdered wig and heeled shoes. It was a city of colonial mansions and of European life in the sun and, even after the Revolution, it remained a very conservative city. Though no one plays classical music with their windows open anymore, its gingerbread mansions are proof of its high-falutin’ past.
Today, Port-au-Prince is a much different city, populated by people of all classes. It is now home to a whole host of new traditions, one of these being bande à pied. During the American occupation, between 1915 and 1934, the Haitian elite decided to modernize the city’s carnival. Considering the old one lewd and crass, Charles De Delva decided to bring in floats and other modernities. The rich were to be on the floats, and the poor in the streets. Fearlessly, the non-wealthy and non-connected continued to go about Haitian Carnival as they felt it should be. From their preservation of traditional carnival grew what’s now known as bande à pied, the street orchestras that soundtrack Haiti’s carnival celebrations, specifically in Port-au-Prince. Each bande à pied, or foot band, generally comes from a specific neighborhood. A number of these bands, such as Otofonik, Titato, and Soul Rasta, have etched their place into Haitian history.
Bande à pied now also play Easter and special occasions, and their presence is felt throughout the pre-Carnival period which begins a month before the main celebration leading up to Lent. There are now bande à pied in cities like Jacmel. It has become a staple of Haitian cultural life.
Here’s a guide to the heavy hitters among the many bands set to file into Port-au-Prince’s streets during this week’s Carnival.
RARAM NO LIMIT
A mega-band of 16 musicians from Bel-Air, Raram is the current era’s most notable band a pye. Bel-Air is a political hotspot in Haiti; when Dr. Francois Duvalier was the dictator of Haiti, it was customary to take the area’s political temperature to gauge how stable the government was. Raram was born near the Notre-Dame du Perpetuel church in 1993. Their biggest hit so far is the song “Laloz” (“You don’t have to beat yourself up / This is how you do the laloz), which became something of a craze in Haiti. The song came to be because of a dancer, Ti Gerald Laloz’s dancing. Other well-known Raram composition include “Ouve le Ko” which became a certified hit when the President of Haiti at the time Rene Preval used the term in a press conference, and “Gaye Pay,” a true classic of bande à pied music. They’ve played in the US and were invited by Hiromi Ishikawa to play in Japan.
4×4 TABOU BAND
After forming in the small city of Port-de-Paix, Tabou Band decided to move to Port-au-Prince, where they are now headquartered in the Christ-Roi neighborhood. Not to be confused with Haitian compas legends Tabou Combo, Tabou Band consists of five drums, two illikon, three kone horns, and five trumpets. 4X4 Tabou Band always makes a solid appearance.
Silobo Tèt Syèl
Sylibo Tet Syel is a mythical band from Jalouzi, a neighborhood of Pétionville. A spin off of heavyweights Raram No Limit, they can be found filling up Pétionville’s “Rue Rebecca,” Rebecca Street, during the Pre-Carnaval period.
Also hailing from Pétionville, Follow Jah has 18 members, some playing different instruments at the same time, showing incredible mastery of an almost 100-year-old tradition. Their name firmly established in Port-au-Prince, Follow Jah are now taking bande a pied culture to the world. They are perhaps the only bande a pied to have played in Europe, and were recently featured in this documentary with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste. as well as in LargeUp’s Artists to Watch feature for 2016.