African Drumbeats in Haitian Music
Of the nearly 50 different spots I’ve been fortunate enough to visit along my travels across the West Indies, none carry closer ties to Africa than Haiti. You taste it in the food. You see it in the symphonic snarl of its bustling urban areas. You feel it in the power of its oft-misunderstood Vodou religion. Most of all, though, you hear it in Haitian music. There are other musical influences here, of course. Spanish, stemming from Haiti’s close cultural ties to Cuba and even closer proximity to the Dominican Republic; French from the old colonial days; Taino from Hispaniola’s original inhabitants; and, of course, American, primarily hip-hop and jazz. (Incidentally, Haiti hosts one of the best jazz festivals in the Caribbean each year in Port-au-Prince. I saw Halie Loren put on an intimate show at the Marriott Port-au-Prince during the 2017 festival and was blown away.) Truly, though, African musical influences exceed them all, most notably when it comes to drums. As in Africa, drums are at the heart of traditional Haitian music. Known as le tanbou, Haitian drums are essential elements of the country’s culture. In style and sound, they descend directly from African Vodun. According to Gaston Jean Baptiste (aka: Bonga), a master drummer in Haiti, a tanbou “must be crafted properly and baptized in order to sound good and do the job.” To hear them being played, as I did when I snapped this pic at the Centre Culturel Lakou Lakay in Milot, is to be transported deep into the soul of what makes Haiti so special, so sweet, so distinctly African.