Consummate Haitian artist Jean-Baptiste is remembered as a great saxophonist, banjo player, guitarist, songwriter, orchestra director and, above all, one of the creators of konpa dirèk or compas direct. During his career, he wrote more than a hundred songs and recorded several albums.
Nemours Jean-Baptiste was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on February 2, 1918. He was born into a poor family and his childhood was difficult and full of hardships. After the early death of his parents, Baptiste and his two brothers and sister were cared for by relatives. From an early age he had to help support the family by working as a barber, a workplace that allowed him to explore his passion for music. Jean-Baptiste came to the world of music by chance. A wealthy friend, Antoine Duverger, asked Jean-Baptiste to keep his banjo for him. Jean-Baptiste learned to play the banjo and on one occasion when Duverger could not attend an event where he was hired to play, Baptiste replaced him. That night, Baptiste earned $30 and a contract with the Guignard Brothers, one of the main big band and Haitian folk music orchestras of the time. Nemours Jean-Baptiste’s musical career took off after that.
In the early years of his musical career, Jean-Baptiste mainly performed concerts in Haiti. During one of his tours, he met Marie Felicité C. Olivier, and they were married in 1946. They had three children: Marie-Denise —who died at age two— Yvrose and Yves Nemours, Jr.
In 1955, he and his band, the Conjunto International, consisting of Julien Paul, Monfort Jean-Baptiste, Anilus Cadet, Mozart and Krutzer Duroseau and Webert Sicot (who was later replaced by Frank Brignol, leading to a rivalry between the two musicians), found success with their konpa dirèk music.
Konpa dirèk — a melding of big band orchestras with mambo, compas and other popular Caribbean rhythms, such as Dominican merengue — revolutionized popular music in Haiti. Over time, it came to include electric guitars, cowbells and timpani and incorporated other rhythms, such as rock ‘n’ roll and traditional Haitian music. In a sense, konpa dirèk became the Haitian national music.
In 1956, Jean-Baptiste met Jean Lumarque, owner of the Calebasses nightclub, who became his promoter. Along with Lumarque, Jean-Baptiste and his orchestra traveled to the United States and Mexico to show off their music. Over the next decade, Jean-Baptiste’s orchestra changed names several times: Ensemble aux Calebasses, Ensemble Nemours Jean-Baptiste and Ensemble Compas Direct.
From 1970 to 1972, he lived in New York, where he played in various nightclubs such as Chateau Caribe in Manhattan and Canne-à-Sucre in Queens. After returning to Haiti, he continued his musical career by founding new orchestras and making tours throughout the Caribbean and the United States.
In the late 1970s, Jean-Baptiste’s health began to deteriorate. In 1967, due to glaucoma, he was left partially blind after losing one eye. In 1981, he traveled to New York to give a series of concerts along with Webert Sicot, his most intense musical rival. But the concerts were canceled when Jean-Baptiste had to have emergency surgery. Jean-Baptiste decided to return to Haiti, against his family’s wishes, and he died there of complications from prostate cancer and blindness on May 18, 1985.
Author: Mintzi Martínez
Published: May 09, 2012.
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