Haitian drums bear the names of the regions of West Africa from which the population came from. One such drum set are the Rada drums whose name is an alternate pronunciation of the city of Allada in Dahomey, now called Benin. Rada drums are generally played as a set of 3 drums. The name of each of the 3 individual drums are also derived from Dahomean languages, the country where similar drums were made.
In Rada drums, wooden pegs are used to hold the cowhide to the body of the drums. The smallest of the 3 drums is called boula in Haiti and banboula elsewhere in the Caribbean. The boula is the drum with the highest pitch, and is about 18 inches tall and is played with two straight sticks to help keep time for the drum assembly. Whereas in Haiti the boula drum is also called the kata drum, in Trinidad it is the sticks that are called kata. The person playing the boula may also be called a boulaye or a katalye.
The second Rada drum is about 24 inches tall and is called the segon for second. It is also called hountòti and it is played with a straight drumstick and with a curved one called agida, each in one hand. As the mid-sized drum, the hountòti has a lower pitch than the boula and it is used to play the main rhythmic sequence. The third and largest drum of the assembly is about 36 inches tall. It is called the mother drum or manman tanbou. Alternatively, the manman tanbou is also called hountò.
¨Hountò rele hountò o, lele e¨ Let the mother drum shout, let it shout.
Hountò is a Dahomean word for drum and for spirit. The name hountò links the Rada drums to the ancient human tradition of using drums in spiritual service. Hountò is also title used by the Adya kings of Dahomen and Adyahountò was the name of the first King of the Kingdom of Allada (Rada) which later became part of Dahomey. Some people call the manman drum Adyahountò, so that the main drum of a set of drums recognized to be from Allada bears the name of the founder of the Kingdom, King Adyahountò.
In Haiti, people who play the drums in devotion to the spirits are called Hountògi. In Brazil, the word Hountògi was translated into Portuguese as Filho-de-Santos (Sons of the Saints), meaning sons of the Ancestral Spirits. By virtue of its large size, the manman drum has the lowest pitch, and its sound travels the furthest. It is played by the most skilled drummer of the assembly using one hand and one drumstick called Bagèt Ginen, meaning West African drumstick. It is the player of the manman drum who improvises, as time and the background rhythm is maintained by the other drums.
This West African style of drumming became a major influence on the popular music of countries throughout the Americas. Whether it be Salsa, Tango, Merengue, Reggae, Sanba, Konpa, Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, or Jazz, the musicians who play popular music all play with a timekeeper, a rhythm section, and a soloist. Each players plays a different beat which merges to make the music multi-rhythmic. Moreover, in Trinidad, because of the kata drum player´s role as a timekeeper, a metronome used by beginner musicians to keep time is also called a kata.
Popular music players, like their Haitian Vodou drummer counterparts, are most often professional players. Although anyone can play an instrument, in general, those who do it for a living, do it better. Haitian Vodou drummers are professionals hired by different hounfò temples to perform. To make themselves marketable, they become virtuoso players. Prior to the selling of recorded music, it was likely their performances at various hounfòs that helped to standardize various Haitian beats and the purpose for which they are played.
Vodou or African religious music also influenced how voices are layered on the instrumental section of modern popular music. Generally a lead singer and a chorus duplicate the call and response of hougans and hounsis in Vodou songs. The influence of African music in Jazz is wel documented. Jazz traces much of its origin to the African music of Congo Square in Louisiana. Because of the African elementin Jazz, early in its history, American Christians tried to vilify the music as devil music. Over time, people have come to simply appreciate the blessings that African multi-rhythmic music has brought to the economies of the countries of the Americas. Popular American music is now a major US export.
Not only has the multi-rhythmic African music in the Americas influenced how current popular music is played, but it has influenced who plays it. Just like in West Africa, in Vodou gatherings, drums are ussually played by males, but songs are sung by both males and females. In popular music, the musicians are generally all males while the singers can be of either sex.
Haitian drum making is a laborious process. Drums must be made so that they are as durable as possible. As kajou (mahogany) is resistant to insect infestation, it is the preferred wood for making Rada drums. Pine, a lighter wood, is preferred for making Petwo drums because those drums are designed to also be used in rara marching bands. After the drums are made, beeswax or alcohol is periodically applied to the skin to help preserve it. The body is periodically painted to help prevent decay.
Pairs of Petwo drums
In Vodou ceremonies, people kiss the ground before the drums to show reverence to the ancestors entombed in the ground in whose honor the drums play. Although there are may different kinds of drums in Haiti, like the timbal, the kès, the bas, the lowango, the dyouba, the two principle drum sets are the previously described Rada drumand the Petwo drum. The Petwo drum honors the King of the Kongo, Don Petwo IV for his opposition to the Commerce of People as Slaves. The name of the drum changed in Haiti but it is the same design as the Toutila (Tuutila or Sukulu) drum of the Kongo. Just like the Tuutila drums of Kongo, in Haiti the Petwo drums are played in pairs. In Kongo, the larger drum is called nGudi meaning mother, and the smaller is called Mwana, meaning child. In Haiti, the larger drum is called Baka and the smaller one Ti-Baka. Ti is Creole for little one.The term Baka honors the mBaka people of the Kongo who were believed to have great spiritual power. This is yet another way of connecting the drums to ancestry and to spirituality.
The Sukulu Kongo drum on which the Haitian Petwo drums are modeled, were also used in funeral services in the Kongo. Its association with the departed, meaning with the ancestors, further infused the Petwo drum with spirituality. It being played in pairs in funeral services is so that one drum represents the departed and the other the living. Considering that the vast majority of Haitian people arrived to Haiti after the collapse of Don Petwo’s government, the Petwo drum took on the name of one of the Kongolese King, Don-Petwo IV. In this way, the name of drum shows respect for a revered ancestor who has since departed.
The Petwo drum is covered with goat skin and played with the hands. The drumskin is rolled on he sides of the rim to provide a cushion for the hand and protect it against the sharp wooden edge. The skin is held in place by ropes that are tied to the bottom of the drum. As the Petwo drum is from the Kongo, it is the drum used to play for the Kongo Nation ( Nanchon Kongo).
The grouping of Rada drums in sets of 3 is also a reminder of the importance of the three world of spirits. Moreover, the drums are made from trees whose branches, trunks, and roots represent the three domain: the celestial, the earthly, and underworld spirits. The pairs of Petwo drums symbolizes the visible and the invisible world. The way that they Vodou drums are made, their names, and how they are grouped, all exude spirituality.
Vodou drums are considered to represent and to facilitate contact with the world of spirits. The ability of drums to promote contact with the world of spirits gives the Haitian drum its reputation as a powerful instrument. In Africa, animals with horns were recognized to be powerful and so in Haiti it is the skin of horned animals that are used for drum skins. In fact, the Dahomean word gbo (bo) for power comes from the sound made by the butting of heads between horned animals. Another animal symbolic of power in Africa is the leopard. Often in Haiti, drums are painted with spots recalling the power of the leopard.
Beyond the symbolism in the number of drums used, Haitian Vodou drumming is well integrated with Vodou religious philosophy. The drummers depict our world by playing one constant beat, which is then followed by the shattering called kase. It is at the point of kase by the mother drum player that contact is made between our world and that of the spiritual realm. In Dahomean tradition, the guardian of that contact is Legba because it is he who was chosen by God to be the patron spirit of communication and of music. In Vodou services, the talented manman drum player mimics the role of Legba by providing the kase that permits contact with the spiritual world. After this contact, the music is played in such a manner so as to show resolution of tension.
Although Haitian drumming had a big influence on popular Haitian music, the Haitian traditional drums did not get incorporated into Konpa for multiple reasons. Konpa came on the scene in 1955 with the release of Nemours Jean Baptiste’s first konpa album. This occurred just shortly after the Christian Churches formally ended their persecution of Vodou along with their rampant destruction of traditional Haitian drums. At the time of Konpa´s emergence, Vodou and its drums were socially unacceptable in many circles. Nonetheless, to satisfy an audience enamored with African drumming, Konpa musicians turned to Cuba for a Kongo drum that had not been an object for persecution in Haiti. The Cuban congas drum is derived from the Kongo ngoma drum. The ngoma drum resembles the Petwo drum but instead of the skin being tied with ropes, it is nailed on. Those nails were replaced in Cuba with metal hooks. This made the task of changing the skin and of tuning it less laborious. The Cuban congas/Kongo drum became popular in the US where it was mass produced. That made it readily available in music stores and easy for Konpa musicians to obtain.
The most spectacular and largest of all drums in Haiti and perhaps in the Americas is the Asòtò drum. The Asòtò is an approximately 6 ft tall Rada type drum. It has 3 openings in its bottom side to allow the sound to exit as the drum is played in a vertical position with the player standing on a chair, on an elevated platform, or even on a tree. The Asòtò is the grand Haitian drum because it highlights many of the principles embedded in spiritual drumming. The drum is called Asòtò, in tribute to the ancestors. Like the Rada drums that are played in a set of three, this drum has three openings at its base each symbolic of the three world of spirits: Celestial spirits, Earthly Spirits, and Underworld Spirits. It is a grand drum that pays tribute to all the spirits including God. t. In Dahomey, God, called Mawou Lisa was thought to have a female aspect, as represented by the moon, and a male aspect, as represented by the sun. In tribute to Mawou, symbolized by the moon, the wood chosen to make the Asòtò drum is from the Mawoudèm tree. The trunk is cut from the tree at the time of a full moon. In honor of Lisa, symbolized by the sun, the skin is applied at midday during the time of the summit of the sun. Before the drum is brought into the hounfò, it undergoes a purification service call batèm and it is dressed in human clothing to remind us that it represents those who came before us, the Ginens.
The drum is first dedicated to God and then to the Ancestors, reminding us that the Ancestors are second only to God in their importance to us, Apre Dye, Ginen yo. When this drum plays, it embodies the time honored tradition of drum playing that gloriously fuses joy and religious service. When the Asòtò is played, it reverberates between our hearts making us feel the presence of the Ancestors within ourselves- Se yo, se nou.
Remembrance: Roots, Rituals and Reverence in Vodou. Available online at bookmanlit´s bookstore
We want to thank Mr Paul Jeremie for the picture showing Rada drums alongside Petwo drums.
A special thanks to Hazel Gutierrez our Trinidadian consultant.
We are thankful to Ayikodans who permitted us to photogragh their boula and Petwo drums.
A very special thank you to all the Hountògis for it is they who kept the tradition allowing us to write about Haitan drums.
We are most especially thankful to those who are no longer among us for it is they who passed the tradition down to us.