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Michaël Brun’s BAYO conjures a joyous destination for the Haitian diaspora

Fans cheer in the crowd at Michaël Brun's BAYO concert at Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on Saturday, June 15.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR
Fans cheer in the crowd at Michaël Brun's BAYO concert at Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on Saturday, June 15.

In the breezy heat of a Brooklyn summer night, DJ Michaël Brun leads a jubilant crowd of 8,000 chanting: “Bayo! Bayo!” Translated from Haitian Creole, “bayo” means “To give.” It's not only the name of one of Brun’s most loved songs, it's the namesake of his yearly festival that’s taken on new meaning amid its biggest show yet.

In years past, Brun and his team have toured the BAYO show around cities in the U.S. and the Caribbean, but for the 2024 edition, the festival was consolidated into one night (June 15), in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, to become the destination event for the diaspora. As fans of all ages fill up the bandshell seating area and back hundreds of yards to the fences, Haitian, Jamaican, Guyanese and Trinidadian flags are donned as fashion at the waist, the neck, the head and, naturally, as extensions of waving hands.

DJ & Music Producer Michaël Brun backstage at his Benefit Concert: Michael Brun Presents BAYO at Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on Saturday, June 15, 2024.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR /
DJ and music producer Michaël Brun backstage at his benefit concert, Michaël Brun Presents BAYO at the Lena Horne Bandshell in Brooklyn's Prospect Park on June 15.

“If you never experienced what Haitian culture, Caribbean culture felt like, it's supposed to be the most concise version of that in a single event,” Brun laughs. “The whole focus is on bringing joy.”

For Brun, that joy started with a collaboration back in 2016. The musician, who is Haitian and Guyanese and grew up in Haiti, was on a trip to Gonave Island to assist with a school’s music program. Working with the children inspired Brun and his collaborators, Strong G, J. Perry and Baky, to give the students an anthem of confidence.

“So much of Haiti in the international news and conversations people would have about the country, it was about how Haiti is impoverished, going through tragedy after tragedy, crisis. It was always negative,” Brun says. “As somebody who lives in the country who is constantly getting this barrage of negativity about yourself, conversations we were having [when making the song] were, like, ‘There’s so much more to the country than that,’ and if we wanted to tell that, we might as well put it in a song.”

“We’re saying ‘We’re giving you culture, we’re giving you music, our story of freedom’,” Brun describes the translated lyrics. When Michaël and friends gave “Bayo” the classic car test after recording it, they started impromptu block parties in the streets of Jacmel, Haiti. From there, he says, “we knew we had something.”

Now, eight years in, Brun has worked to extend BAYO's community reach with each show. As it has grown to an annual fest, BAYO still maintains a familial, block party feel. While summertime is the thick of festival season, with sky-high ticket prices and crowded rosters, BAYO offers a different experience for fans.

Raina Ulysse, Marjorie Ulysse, Vick Ulysse and Tiffany Ulysse (the Ulysse family) at Benefit Concert: Michaël Brun Presents BAYO at Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on Saturday, June 15.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR /
Raina Ulysse, Marjorie Ulysse, Vick Ulysse and Tiffany Ulysse pose for a photo at the benefit concert in Brooklyn's Prospect Park on June 15.

When BAYO is announced, Brun is the only advertised name on the lineup, and all other performers are surprises revealed the night-of. As a sought-after producer for artists from across genres — Latin, electronic, jazz, pop — Brun operates as a maestro onstage, curating a fête of acts that purposely spans generations. And as much as the crowd buzzes with anticipation for who will pop out during the show, patrons are just as excited to embrace others in the audience with them.

“So many of us left Haiti because we had to, not because we wanted to,” says Rolandjhita Chavannes, who fled Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. As a fan of Brun's since 2013, Chavannes says she’s been to more than four BAYO tours. “We come here to see our family members, our friends and party like we used to in Haiti, and that's what’s different for us than any other festival — it’s coming here every year and seeing our people happy, just Haitian joy.”

“That isn’t something I saw when I was growing up,” remembers Mireille Lemaine as she claps along in her lawn chair. “Haitian music is huge now. Haiti’s on the map. When I was a kid, growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘80s, it wasn’t like that.”

Jeff Pereisa at the Benefit Concert: Michaël Brun Presents BAYO. “The music’s so different from one generation [to the next]. You’ve got your konpa, your rara, your Rabòday,” Jeff Periera says while attending the concert. “Michaël does a really good job of blending it all together and bringing us all together,” says Pereisa.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR /
Jeff Periera at the Benefit Concert: Michaël Brun Presents BAYO. “The music’s so different from one generation [to the next]. You’ve got your konpa, your rara, your Rabòday,” Periera says. “Michaël does a really good job of blending it all together and bringing us all together.”

“The really cool thing that Michaël Brun’s able to do is he’s able to bridge the gap between older and younger Haitians, and that’s probably, like, the biggest challenge,” notes Jeff Periera, 35, who came from New Jersey to attend this year's show, his first BAYO. “The music’s so different from one generation [to the next]. You’ve got your konpa, your rara, your Rabòday … but Michaël does a really good job of blending it all together and bringing us all together.”

This year’s lineup jumped all over the globe, including Haitian American R&B newcomer Serina, Nigerian pop sensation Oxlade, hype Haitian DJ TonyMix, Jamaica’s Serani, Colombia’s J Balvin and Brooklyn-bred, neo-soul icon Maxwell.

To close the night, the unofficial headliner was legendary konpa ensemble Tabou Combo, who received an official commendation award from the city of New York in celebration of their five-decade career and Caribbean American Heritage Month.

Legendary Haitian music group Tabou Combo performs alongside Michaël Brun.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR /
Legendary Haitian music group Tabou Combo performs alongside Michaël Brun.

“Looking out [into the audience], I saw unity through music,” says Oxlade, who flew in from Lagos for the show. “I saw the power and magnitude of what we’re doing — our job is to bring people together and heal souls with this.”

The more the sun dips under the tree line, the more the bandshell string lights illuminate the waves of excitement radiating toward the stage. Audience cheers intensify with each new surprise guest revealed. In the back grassy area, by the merch and food tents, pockets of the crowd circle up into dance parties. With the diversity of genres and eras covered, most everyone gets to leave the night with a new musical discovery.

For a country that’s been fractured for so long, these moments of unity are visibly savored as a respite. As the first island nation in the Caribbean to fight for and win their independence from France in 1804, Haiti’s people have endured a history of struggles, facing both natural disasters and man-made power struggles. Since 2020, ongoing political unrest, including coup d'états and a presidential assassination, have caused much of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to become overrun by gangs. This year, deaths from gang violence are reportedly surging, and international bodies from the U.S., Africa and other Caribbean nations have pledged to intervene. In May, Kenyan police officers were deployed to the island to push back the gangs but were then sent home.

“I feel like there’s a lot of foreign meddling in the country and, as a result, that, along with political instability, make what’s happening in the capital what it is,” explains Brooklyn's Misha Bernier, who's attending her third BAYO. “Because of that, that’s all we see in the news. I think there is a demonizing of Haiti and a fear that’s constantly being pushed on us to not go back, and I think we need to question, ‘Why is that? What’s the deeper motive? What’s underneath that?’ If you fear your homeland, it allows for you to not go back and maybe allows for others to come in and take it from you.”

Misha Bernier at Benefit Concert: Michaël Brun Presents BAYO on Saturday, June 15, 2024.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR /
Misha Bernier at Benefit Concert: Michaël Brun Presents BAYO on June 15.

Brun, at 32 years old, says he’s lived through two coup d'états and has been vocal about wanting transparency during government transitions. In the midst of political uncertainty, he wants BAYO to be a “vehicle” to start a new story about his homeland.

“Haiti is a massive country, and we, our culture, we just have very little visibility,” he says. “To the point where I think that it's almost strange for people to see themselves, their music onstage like this, at this level, so there’s that angle: to feel seen.”

It’s also about using visibility to funnel efforts into being heard. With BAYO tracing its origins back to a trip at a music school, Brun and his team work to collect a dollar from every ticket sold to donate to the Artist Institute and Friends of Matènwa, the same school Brun visited in 2016. Brun has also recently helped to found the central Haiti Relief Fund page, which sends donations to Haitian-run organizations focused on agriculture and health care to help innocent people caught in the “power vacuum.” Brun focuses his philanthropic efforts to make sure Haitian people are proud of their past and, when the country rehabilitates, in full control of their future.

Music fans raise their phones with their flashlights turned on.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR /
Music fans raise their phones with their flashlights turned on.

“The people of Haiti have constantly been written out of their own story, in the global sense. I think that’s maybe been the consistent factor, honestly, since the founding of the country,” Brun says. “I would say I'm an optimist and I believe in love as a tool in order for change. I work hard to be welcoming, to create spaces that are safe and that are equitable … But that requires force sometimes, that requires pressure in a direction, and I think my way of doing that is by doing these BAYO shows, raising money for these causes, making the music I make, by having conversations that maybe help expand people’s minds, I think, helping people to understand there is greatness and excellence from my people and my cultures. By doing that, naturally, the story will be rewritten.”

As BAYO Brooklyn wraps up hitting new attendance highs, the Rara band, a staple of any large Haitian celebration, takes Brun’s party from the stage to the cement and ushers revelers out of the bandshell in a rhythm of drums and horns. Guiding the mass of people out onto the streets of Prospect Park West, chants of “Bayo!” and “Ayibobo! (Amen!)” lead the way.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Rara band plays as fans file out of the venue on Saturday, June 15.
Lanna Apisukh for NPR /
The Rara band plays as fans file out of the venue on June 15.

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Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.