The history of the Haitian drum parallels our own history. It goes back to the development of the human mind in Africa and the creativity that allowed people to make musical instruments. It is uncertain how old drum making is because its components decay rapidly, particularly in warm climates. The earliest record of drum making in Africa goes back to 5000 years ago in Egypt where some funeral rites involved burying the dead with a drum, perhaps for the departed to announce entry into the life hereafter.
The finding of drums in old burial sites, in ancient statues of religious leaders, and the 17,000 year old “Les Trois Freres” rock paintings in France depicting people dancing suggest a longstanding tradition of drum use in religious practice and in public expressions of joy. Across religions and throughout human history, there is no man-made instrument more often used in religious service and therefore more sacred than the drum.
Haitian drums have continued the long tradition of expressing joy and merging it with religious service in remembrance of those who preceded us, the Ancestors – the Lwas. As Vodou celebrates ancestry, items that reach far back in human history have special importance in the religion. The drum is one such item. It is an old instrument but we do not know exactly how old. Nor do we know whether it predates flutes made from hollow animal bones which are better able to survive erosion. The oldest bone flute is 35,000 years old. Other instruments made of rocks cut to generate different pitches are even older than the oldest known drums. The making of stone tools may well have led to the development of stone instruments much before the use of these same tools led to the making of drums. Hollowing a tree trunk and stretching a prepared animal skin over it are more complex tasks then blowing into a hollow bone, making it more likely that flutes predated drums.
The Haitian drum seems to have come to us through incremental steps. A probable ancestor of our modern drum is the making of traps for hunting small animals. A hole would be dug in the ground and covered with a light object like a large leaf or animal skin. The animal would fall into the hole when walking on the cover. In the process, people likely discovered that hitting the edge of the hole or striking the skin over the hole produces a pleasant sound. In Haiti, this type of in-ground drum is called mayengwen. Such drums are common in Africa and Asia.
Over time, instead of just making the hole in the ground, the hole was made in tree trunks, creating a more portable instrument. Such hollowed tree trunks covered with animal skin are known by the technical term membranophone. Those left uncovered are called ideophones. Both types of drums are common throughout the world with numerous regional variations. The shape of the drums, their size, the type of wood used, the presence or absence of a membrane cover, and the type of animal skin used, all vary within ethnic groups and by geographic regions. When a skin covering is used, the tension on the skin affects the quality of sound generated. The skin covering expands with moisture and contracts with heat. For this reason, drums are heated to tune them. In Haiti, heating a drum before religious service is said to invigorate the drum.
On the west coast of Africa, each ethnic group developed a unique rhythm to serve as a national anthem. Within each ethnic group, there were additional rhythms for religious service, marriage, coming of age, government inaugurations etc. These practices are conserved in Haiti where drummers play various beats to identify different African Nations (Nanchon). A variety of other beats are also played for other activities. Beats that identify African nations include Nago, Kongo, Ibo, and Mayi. There are occasion specific beats like Konpa for ballroom dancing, Mereng and Rabòday for carnaval, Woule for public speech, and various other beats used in Kòve groups to distract the worker´s minds from their burdensome workload.
The oldest drum found in Haiti is about 1000 years old and was found on the island of Lagonav and was taken to the Smithsonian Native American Museum. This ancient drum dates back to when the territory was inhabited by its first immigrants, called the native population. The drum has deteriorated so much that its exact shape is unclear. Because the island lacked land based mammals, the drumhead would not have been made from goat or cow skin as these animals arrived to the island from Africa during time of the Trans-Atlantic Trade of People as Slaves. The arrival of these animals to Haiti allowed its subsequent African population to replicate some of the drums they had back in their homeland. Current Haitian drums are new to the territory and are named for different regions of the West Coast of Africa. Nonetheless, some African drums, like those made with elephant skin could not be reproduced in Haiti and have not been conserved in Afro-Haitian tradition.
Throughout the world, long cylindrical drums are preferentially played by males. Even the title used for drummers, hountògi, is a masculin term and it contains the word hountò which is also the title of the King of the Adya people of Dahomey. In Africa, these drums were widely regarded as having female attributes as they are hollow and played with sticks. Both in Africa and in Haiti, the lead drum is often called manman, accentuating its female attribute. One Haitian song highlights this association of the drum with sexuality and states, ¨the drum is not your mother, nor your father, stick it to it every which way you can¨ Tanbou e pa manman w, pa papa w, ba li bagèt kote w jwenn.
An additional reason why the drum is mostly played by males is that it is perceived as having the ability to intoxicate people with joy and to make them lose their inhibitions. Such behavior is regarded as hot and more suitable for men whose testosterone levels make them more aggressive. Women are associated with behaviors that are more passive. As a hot instrument, the drum has been used to accompany men in the act of war where its signal can carry for about 15 miles allowing armies to coordinate their activities across large distances even before the days of telegraph and telephone. The kès drum was adopted from the Middle East by European armies during the Christian Crusades and used for telecommunication. As a result the Arabic word tumbur gave rise to the French word tambour for drum. This European military drum gave rise to the tambourin, a type of drum featured in the Haitian flag.
If Haitian drums could speak, they would tell us that because drums have been a symbol of religious and cultural expression, suppression of our culture by foreign forces and by their local allies has commonly taken the form of attacks on our drums. Drums chaperoned us through the Trans-Altantic voyage and through the era of enslavement and beyond. Drums were beaten aboard slave ships to encourage the enslaved captives to exercise because so many were dying from blood clots caused by immobility. Africans arriving in Haiti made their own drums and its sound became a symbol of resistance against European Christians who had already eradicated the use of drums in European religious services to distinguish Christianity from traditional European faiths that had used drums. The Europea Christian distaste for drums was taken to Haiti where European Christians made a constant effort to eliminate African drums.
The aversion of Europeans for drums is in part due to the efforts of early Jewish followers of Christ escaping Roman persecution in Israel to distance themselves from Jewish traditions so as to ingratiate themselves with the Romans. In their writings in Europe, they made no mention of drums in religious celebrations and this is why drums are not mentioned in biblical text written by ex-Jews for European consumption.
In texts that were written for Middle Eastern readers, the drums are favored by God and are used in worshiping God: Genesis 31:27, Psalm 68:24-25, Psalm 150:3-4. When the Romans adopted Christianity, they adopted the views of the early Jewish Christians towards drumming.
On the other hand, another group of early Jewish followers of Christ escaped Roman persecution and settled in Ethiopia instead of in Europe. There in Ethiopa these early Chritians took a different approach and they embraced the local culture and found no need to denounce drum playing. Drumming became a part of Ethiopian Christian religious service because the Christian Church in Rome and the Christian Church in Ethiopia developed independently.
Over in Haiti (Saint Domingue), the Code Noir made all religions but European Catholicism illegal. Nonetheless, for a while, the French colonists allowed Vodou religious services as a necessary compromise to the enslaved population who insisted on retaining their beliefs and culture. However, in 1758, religious gatherings called Kalinda were made illegal. Later, in 1777 around the time of the American Revolution, with growing instability on the island, drum playing was made illegal. In 1795, Marie Benoit Gouly argued to the French Senate that liberty would be wasted on the people of Haiti because African minds could only appreciate drums. During the American Occupation from 1915 to 1929, drum playing was suppressed in Haiti as an illicit activity. Later in 1942, the Catholic church conducted the Rejection campaign during which drums were confiscated and destroyed by foreign agents.
During the Rejection, a large number of these drums were taken to the Smithsonian library in Washington which now has one of the world´s largest collection of Haitian drums in its warehouse. The Smithsonian should put these drums on display, or perhaps return them to Haiti so that the world can best appreciate how our drums have changed or have been preserved over time.