Haitian drumming comes directly from the West African drumming tradition, an amazing and diverse musical tradition going back beyond historical record. My intention for this post is to give a very, very basic overview of Afro/Haitian percussion for non musicians.
Let’s start with an example or two of Haitian drumming. I chose 2 vids which are very clear and easy to follow. There’s much cooler Vodou drumming vids, but for educational purposes these are much clearer.
Percussion playing all revolves around the idea of poly-rhythms. That is, each drummer plays a simple pattern. When these patterns are played at once, over top of each other, they create a much denser and more complicated sound.
A great example, one i use when i do artist in resident workshops with kids, is the use of nursery rhymes. Name some nursery rhymes: hickory dickory dock, ba ba black sheep, three blind mice. Okay, we have three people and each one is going to play one fo these nursery rhymes on a drum. When all three play their different nursery rhymes together, you get a really interesting and complex wall of rhythm.
This is the essential idea of percussion. The African tradition is an amazing one and the Haitian drumming for Vodou is a direct descendent of West Africa, Nigerian, and Congo traditions.
Sometimes rhythms will be of different lengths which creates wonderful layers of rhythm, and sometimes different time signatures are layered on top of each other. I notice a lot of drumming in which the bell plays at a fast 6 count (6/8) while other drums play at a slower 4 count (4/4). This also creates a wild effect, where the music seems to wrap around itself without any beginning or end. By this i mean when you listen to say a pop song, you an count along with it 1, 2, 3, 4 over and over. When these tempos layers occur it is harder to say where a 1 is… it can be more than one place or simply lost in the spiraling rhythm.
While putzing around the net watching videos of drumming i came across these 2 educational vids which are flat out fantastic. They illustrates perfectly how the entire concept works at its most basic level. You only need 1 in this post so we’ll use this one:
Bingo. You see? Different rhythms over top of one another. So percussionists in a tradition know numerous, very specific rhythms the way a western musician would know all sorts of well known melodies and chord changes.
Now, in Haitian Vodou drumming there are all sorts of specific rhythms one would use depending on what part of the ceremony one is in and which Loa is being called up. Usually the drummer playing the Maman Drum (the Mother Drum) leads the changes. The ensemble is playing a certain series of rhythms for a particular Loa spirit to come. When the Maman player perceives that one of the dancers is becoming possessed, he will break from the rhythm into a new, specific, counter rhythm to facilitate the spirit’s arrival and intensify the music. Sometimes the rest of the drummers will change with him and sometimes they will continue the groove while the Maman player eggs the Loa on to a state of full possession of the celebrant.
Unlike most West African percussion ensembles, Haitian drumming does not use a djembe. The Haitian ensemble is often made up of 3 drums plus a bell, although there is a type of ensemble made up of only 2 drums. We’re going to focus on the 3 drum ensemble, called the Rada Batterie.
The Maman (or Mother) Drum is the biggest, the Segon is medium sized and Boula is the small one.
There is always a bell, called an Ogan, but this can be any metallic object, such as a hoe blade that will make a good tinky sound.
This is the main ensemble, although occasionally a priest will use a gourd that functions as a rattle, and a bass drum can be added for very simple bottom rhythms.
Here is another vid of drums in action during a real ceremony: