In the long history of Haitian music, there’s been no figure more singular than Antoine Rossini “Ti Manno” Jean Baptiste was born in Gonaives in 1953, known as singer, guitar player, keyboard player, and percussionist. In the early 70’s he migrated to Boston and with Ricot Mazarin formed Volo Volo of Boston. In 1978, after touring with DP Express, he decided to take residence in Port-Au-Prince, Ti Manno became one of Haiti’s founding fathers of conscious music.
It was during his time as lead singer of legendary konpa band Gemini All Stars that Baptiste solidified his legacy as not only a great konpa musician, but also one of Haiti’s leading social activists.
The musical genre Konpa originated in the Caribbean island of Haiti and was popularized in the 1950s by Haitian jazz artist Nemours Jean-Baptiste. Although konpa is often described simply as a modern form of meringue, the music style is a much more complicated one that mirrors the island’s rich, diverse cultural history.
Konpa fuses African rhythms and European ballroom dance to produce a music style reflective of the people’s French, African, indigenous Tainos and Spanish background. Sung over a constant two-step beat, the songs are typically recorded in French or Haitian Creole, a language based largely on 18th century French with influences from Portuguese, Spanish, English, Taíno, and West African languages.
“Ti Manno” used the music of his people to expose the injustices of their world. By 32, he was national icon. His lyrics not only examine the vices and lack of progress in Haiti, but also shed light on the human condition, African unity, corruption and discrimination. His music was so thought provoking and dynamic that he was forced to leave his country at the height of the Duvalier regime.
Described as a musical prophet by Rene Davis, general manager/owner of New York based band, Karizma…“Ti Manno’s music propelled the musician to the same level of stardom as Michael Jackson’s. Nearly twenty years later after his death his music, says Davis, “continues to resonate with millions of Haitians and French Caribbeans.”
Yet, despite the popularity and successful career, at the time of his death Baptiste was penniless and eventually buried in a county-owned cemetery.
As tragic as Baptiste’s ending is, it’s not one that is unheard of. Several celebrities have died bankrupt whether due to mismanagement of finances or drug abuse. Baptiste circumstances at the time of his death, however, were quite different. He wasn’t penniless because of a rock star lifestyle or drugs.
Haiti’s most recognized and influential musician died penniless because he was an artist in the Haitian Music Industry (HMI).
“The Haitian music industry is fictitious. It doesn’t exist,” Melissa Bernier, a Haitian-American entertainment lawyer, said. “It’s a figment of everyone’s imagination.”