No one seems quite sure how it happened, but there’s a Boston Thanksgiving weekend tradition that is becoming as enduring as football and turkey: shows featuring Haitian musicians. Promoter Picard Thelasco says members of the Haitian community will come “from Florida, New York, Canada. Everyone comes to visit their family here, and then they want to go out. Boston is the center of Haitian events every Thanksgiving.”
There is ample opportunity to hear the lilting rhythms of this popular dance music this weekend, as more than a dozen Haitian artists appear in the Boston area. In Randolph, Vincent’s Nightclub is in the midst of a four-night run of shows that includes compas mainstays Harmonik and Nulook. This might be the final Thanksgiving weekend for the club in the long-running Lombardo’s function hall complex, which was recently sold to a developer. Tamboo Bistro in Brockton, a smaller venue that often features up-and-coming Haitian artists, is hosting 5lan on Friday. Thanksgiving weekend Haitian events at Oceanside in Revere, which hosts international music all year, include Haitian hip-hop breakout star Baky on Saturday.
“We had 1,500 people for Baky at Oceanside back in September,” reports Thelasco. “He’s got talent and swag and attracts a younger crowd than some of the compas bands.”
In most genres, major touring acts would limit their appearances in a given market to once a year. Haitian-American promoter Fito Hyacinthe says the market for Haitian acts in Boston is so strong that top-drawing bands can keep coming back every few months.
“Boston used to be a satellite town. Artists would come to New York for their main show and then they’d pick up a date in Boston as an extra,” says Hyacinthe, who started in the music business promoting parties at his Northeastern University dorm in the early ‘90s. “Boston has quickly become a main town, so I think Boston is one of the top two or three markets in the US for compas right now. All of the consistent bands — Kai [which Hyacinthe manages], Nulook, Vayb, Klass, and Harmonik are playing at least three times a year in Boston.”
While the local Haitian music scene may be surging, the news out of Haiti remains bleak. Armed gangs control much of Port-au-Prince, with murders, kidnappings, and assaults rampant. A cholera outbreak has been worsened by limited access to resources.
Inevitably, the political and humanitarian crises have impacted musicians. Sunday’s show at Vincent’s pairs the long-running big band Orchestre Tropicana d’Haïti with famed singer-songwriter Emeline Michel. While many compas bands have relocated to the United States in recent years, Tropicana is still based in Haiti. Since the US Embassy there closed, the band members had to travel to the Dominican Republic to apply for visas. As of presstime, Tropicana was still awaiting word on whether it will be able to perform this weekend, but Hyacinthe says “so far things are on the right track.”
Michel is known for writing lyrics that grapple with the dreams and reflections of a Haitian living abroad. One of those songs, “La Karidad,” describes the Port-au-Prince neighborhood she grew up in, and even references sneaking off to Tropicana’s rehearsal hall.
She is currently putting the finishing touches on her first new studio album in a decade, “Paix y Solt,” which is Creole for “Let Peace Be.”
“After we had completed the recordings I stepped back and realized that I had written the album about peace. It’s a word that comes up over and over again on many of the songs,” says Michel from her New York home. “I want to find a space inside my heart where I can find peace, because with everything going on, whether it be in Haiti or Ukraine, you can feel powerless.”
One track was slated to be recorded with the Voices of Haiti children’s choir, which has performed with Michel and Andrea Bocelli in Italy. “The song was written for them, and then all of a sudden we couldn’t take the children out to record the song and make the video. It is heartbreaking,” says Michel, who instead recorded the song with the choir of the Masion d’Haiti organization, which serves the Haitian immigrant community in Montreal.
Michel gets tearful when she speaks of the children she’s worked with who are now unable to go to school in their violence-torn nation. “The last time we spoke I promised them that I would come back. It’s not right for a child to be growing up like that. We need to step up and make things right.”
With her stature as an international ambassador of Haitian song, Michel has upcoming performances at the Lincoln and Kennedy centers. But she says it’s always special when she performs for the Haitian-American community at shows like the one scheduled for Vincent’s; she knows why Haitians in the diaspora are so supportive of live music.
“It’s uplifting. The audience feeds me,” she says. “In the present moment there’s this tension, this darkness, this big cloud not just over Haiti but over the whole world. But when I’m with a Haitian audience, I feel the need to take us all back home, even if it’s just in a figurative sense. To let us immerse ourselves in the sound, in the dancing, and in the feeling of what is beautiful about Haiti.”
At Tamboo Bistro, Brockton. Nov. 25 at 9 p.m. (doors). $30. www.eventbrite.com
At Vincent’s Nightclub, Randolph. Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. (doors). $40-$75. www.eventbrite.com
With Vayb and Jacksy. At Oceanside, Revere. Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. (doors). $50. www.eventbrite.com
ORCHESTRE TROPICANA D’HAITI WITH EMELINE MICHEL
At Vincent’s Nightclub, Randolph. Nov. 27 at 9 p.m. (doors). $40-$60. www.eventbrite.com