Haitian vodou drumming
Vodou drumming and ceremonies are inextricably linked in Haiti. While drumming does exist in other contexts in the country, by far the richest traditions come from this distinctly Haitian religion. As such, before one can come to play, appreciate, and understand this music one should view it in its religious context. Haitian Vodou is a henotheistic religion, although viewed by many Haitians as a cultural practice, widely practiced in the country of Haiti. Vodou as practiced in urban centres in Haiti and some cities in North America (especially New Orleans) is a ritualistic faith system that involves ceremonies that consist of singing, drumming and dancing. While certain aspects of this religion may share the same roots, it is completely contrary to the stereotype of black magic, witch doctors, pins in dolls, and zombies portrayed by New Orleans style Voodoo (a bastardization of the name).
The many thousands of African slaves who were transported to Haiti in the 17th and 18th century were forbidden to practice their animistic religions and were forced to accept the Catholic Church. Over time, they disguised their belief in many gods or spirits by assigning Catholic saint names to each one of them, so they could tell their oppressors that they were worshiping saints. A similar process occurred with the slaves of Cuba who created the religion of Santeria. In fact, Candomble in Brazil, Obeayisne in Jamaica, and Shango in Trinidad were all examples of this religious transformation. Even though Haiti became independent during a slave uprising in 1804, (the only successful slave revolt in modern history), Vodou continued to be practiced in different ways by different communities around the country. It remains the most prominent religion in the country to this day.
Lwas and nanchons
Vodou rites are done to call upon spirits, called Lwas (or Loas), for their aid, instruction, special powers and strengths. Lwas are ancestral spirits who have become abstracted through the generations to become embodiments of certain principles or characteristics. A great feast is often prepared to entice the Lwas to attend. Practitioners of the religion wear white clothes and are assisted by Ougan and Manbo (male and female Vodou priests, respectively) to become “possessed” by the Lwas. Through singing, dancing, and particularly the music of the drums, spirits come to “ride” their mortal hosts. The analogy of someone riding, and thereby controlling, a horse is given as an explanation of this phenomenon. The word Chwal (from the French cheval) is used to describe one who is “being ridden”. Spirits impart wisdom and direction through their chwals for the servants of the faith.
The Lwas are divided up into several nanchons (from the French nations), families of spirits from the same ethnic group and/or serving a similar function. The most prominent nanchons are Rada, Nago, Djouba, Petwo (also written Petro), Kongo, Ibo, and Gède. Traditionally each one of these nanchons would have had particular rites, rhythms and adherents. They even would have had their own drums that were unique to that nanchon to call upon its lwas. These drum sets are known as batterie (from the French for “set of drums”). Today, due to economic constrictions and social and geographic changes, the drums from the Rada batterie are the most common, with the Petwo drums also extant.
Below is an overview of the several nanchons, the qualities and origins of their laws, and the rhythms and dances associated with their rites.
Rada - The lwas of this nanchon are strong, but benevolent, balanced in their treatment of their servants. These are the most revered spirits, and many Vodou rituals begin with adulations for them. They originate from the Fon people of Dahomey (present day Benin). In Fact, the word Vodou comes from the Fon word for “God”. There are many lwas in this group. To name a few: Papa Legba – Guardian of the Crossroads; Marassa – twin spirits who represent childhood; Dambala – the serpent spirit who represents energy and life; Ezili Freda – spirit of love and femininity; Lasirèn – mistress of the sea and music. Rhythm and dance styles played for the Rada nanchon include: Yanvalou, Parigol, Zepol, Mahi, Fla Voudou and Daomé.
Nago - The lwas of this nanchon represent power. Its members embody attributes of warriors and leaders. They originate from the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria and are closely associated with Ogun (sometimes written Ogou), the Yoruba Blacksmith-God. The lwas in this group have names starting with Ogun, like Ogun Fèray and Ogun Badagri. As such, they are represented by steel and fire. The Nago rites are replete with military imagery. These spirits give masculine, fatherly council and support. The rhythm and dance style associated with these rites is also called Nago.
Djouba - The lwas of this nanchon are connected to cultivation and farming. They personify peasants, both in appearance and manner. It is surmised that this nanchon comes from the island of Martinique. The principal lwa for this group is Azaka. The rhythms and dance styles associated with this nanchon are Djouba (Matinik) and Abitan.
Petwo - The lwas of this nanchon are aggressive, demanding, quick and protective. The origins of this nanchon are unclear, but many believe them to be the spirits of the original slaves and Haiti’s indigenous people (The Taino – almost completely wiped out after European contact), a sort of “home-grown” family of spirits. These spirits were called upon during the slave revolts beginning in 1791 which ultimately lead to the defeat of Napoleons troops in 1803 and independence in 1804. The name might be derived from a slave priest of mixed African and Spanish Blood name Don Pedro who was one of the rebellion’s leaders. One of the lwas in this nanchon bears his name (Jean Petwo). Another, Ezili Danto - sister to Ezili Freda in the Rada nanchon - is a spirit of love, but with a penchant for violence or revenge. The rhythm and dance styles associate with Petwo include Petwo, Makiya, Bumba, Makanda, and Kita.
Kongo - The lwas of this nanchon are ancestors of the Bantu people of the Congo river basin. These spirits are gracious, and enjoy song and dance. In fact, music played for the Kongo nanchon is unique in that it is also popular in secular settings. In vodou worship houses called tanp (from the French temple) dolls representing these spirits are displayed adorned in brightly coloured clothing. Sprits include Kongo Zando and Rwa Wangol. The rhythm and dance style associated with this nanchon goes by the same name.
Ibo – The lwas of this nanchon are from the Ibo people in south-eastern Nigeria. Their chief attributes are pride, to the point of arrogance, and are difficult to satisfy. These spirits preside over sacred items called Kanari, clay pots in which the soul of the initiate is said to reside during ritual possession. The best known lwa of this group is Ibo Lélé (the chatterer). The rhythm and dance style associated with this nanchon also goes by the same name.
Gède - The lwas of this nanchon are the spirits eroticism and death. More accurately they control the cycle of death and life. They are represented by figures in black with white faces. They are also tricksters. The most famous lwa of this nanchon is Baron Samedi. He is macabre, obscene and lives in cemeteries. Other lwas include Gède Nibo, Baron Lakwa and Gède Zarien. The Vodou ceremony almost always ends with the rites for Gède nanchon. The rhythm and dance style associated with this nanchon is called Banda.
While these seven nanchons all have their distinct attributes, in a more general way the nanchons are divided into two branches, each of which takes its name from one of the nanchons within it. While there is no consensus on this point, it can generally be argued that the Rada branch includes Rada, Nago and Djouba, and the Petwo branch includes Petwo, Kongo, Ibo and Gède. Some people place Djouba under the Petwo Branch, and some others consider the Kongo branch its own entity. For the purposes of drumming, we will use the two-branch differentiation, as rhythms most rhythms being played in non traditional contexts today use either the Rada or Petro batterie.
The Rada batterie and The Petwo batterie display as much contrast as the lwas of the nanchon branches for which they play. The table below will illustrate some of the differences
|Skin is fastened with||Pegs||Rope|
|Rhythmic Time Signature||Triple Meter||Duple Meter|
|Drums In Set (traditional)||Three||Two|
|Traditionally Drums Are Played With||Sticks||Hands|
|General Characteristics of Lwas Summoned||Formal, Hierarchical, Even Tempered||Informal, Communal, Temperamental|
Increasingly, particularly in New York and by default throughout the rest of the U.S., the Rada drum ensemble has eclipsed the Petwo ensemble and all rhythms in the Vodou rites are being played on them. Modifications to the Petwo rhythms have been made to make them fit into the Rada batterie. I mention this point in that many transcriptions being shared and taught today (including those in some of the publications listed below) use only the Rada ensemble. The implications of this evolution in drum use are hard to analyze or predict.
The Rada batterie
This ensemble consists of a family of three drums - The Manman, Segon and Boula - and one bell called Ogan. Often any steel implement, such as the blade of a hoe, will serve as a bell. These drums are all slender and somewhat conical. They look similar to Arara and Yoruba drums seen in Nigeria, Benin and Togo
The Maman – (from the French for Mother) This is the tallest and deepest drum in the ensemble, and plays the role of the leader. Ranges in height from 30 to 48 inches. The master Maman player takes cues from the participants in the ceremony, from the officiating priests, and from the lwas themselves. It is played with a stick in the strong hand and bare handed with the weak hand. The stick, called a Bagèt (from the French baguette), strikes both the head of the drum and the side, producing a strong clicking sound. The bagèt can be straight, curved, hooked, or even hammer shaped.
The Segon – (from the French Seconde, meaning second) This is the middle drum in the ensemble, and its rhythms create a base to which the Maman can create its counterpoint. It is typically between 24 and 30 inches tall. Traditionally this drum is also played with one stick and one bare hand, although the stick style differs somewhat from the Maman. In more contemporary settings, especially in New York, the Segon is played with two bare hands. In modern settings conga drums are used as a substitute for traditional Haitian instruments, particularly with the Segon.
The Boula – This drum is the smallest of the three (7-8 inches in diameter and 18 – 24 inches tall) and is responsible for playing an ostinato pattern which really propels the rhythm forward. This drum is played with two sticks, and the base rests flat on the floor. The tone created is high, but somewhat muted. While this drum's parts seem simple, it requires true skill and stamina to play them accurately, especially at fast tempos.
Other instruments which are occasionally included are the Ason and the Bas. The Ason is a gourd rattle covered in a web of beads used particularly by the priests during the Rada ceremonies. The Bas (from the French Basse) is a large shallow frame drum which performs the task of providing a simple foundation for the other drummers.
The Petwo batterie
There are traditionally only a pair of drums in the Petwo ensemble, the Ti Baka and the Gwo Baka (ti and gwo are from the French Petit and Gros). These drums resemble congas, but with much more slender tapered bottoms. These drums are similar in appearance except for size. Counterhoops for the skins are made from lianas or stiff vines. The skin is stretched by rope laced between the counterhoop Wooden wedges are inserted between the rope and the drum to add tension on the skin. In contemporary settings, in Port-au-Prince at least, a drum called a Kata is added to the ensemble. This drum serves the same function as the Boula in the Rada batterie and is played in the same way. Drummers claim that this addition “heats-up” the music.
Aspects of the Music
There are so many subtleties and complexities in Haitian drumming, particularly in its relation to the rites and rituals of Vodou, that an overview of this kind cannot truly describe them in any detail. For instance, many of the rhythms have variations, each with their own subtitles, each assisting different lwa. A good example of this is found in the Mahi rhythm - Mahi Darielle, Mahi Japeté and Mahi Deté are all variations of Mahi Simp (from the French Simple). However, some discussion of forms and techniques involved is essential.
An extremely important aspect of the performance of this music is the Kasé (from the French Casser, to break). The kasé is a break from the main cycle of the rhythm into a kind of alter-ego rhythm, usually instigated by the maman drum. In some cases, all thee drums respond to the kasé with their respective changes, but often it is only the maman who will change, or at least the change in the segon is more subtle. Some kasé patterns stray quite far from the main rhythm, some create a counter pulse to it and others still remain fairly rooted in the pulse. Every rhythm has a kasé, and every kasé has its own way to enter and exit from the main line. Dancers also change their steps to follow the kasé.
The kasé is typically played to assist with aspects of the Vodou ritual, such as pouring libations before the drums. Sometimes these are cued by the officiating priests, sometimes by the maman player himself. However, the most dramatic use of the kasé is to facilitate spiritual possession. If the maman player recognizes the physical signs at the inception of a possession of one of the servants or dancers, he will play a heated kasé to entice the lwa and may keep up the intense drumming of the kasé until the chwal in question is fully possessed.
The drums of Vodou employ techniques completely unique to the style. One of the most dramatic and difficult techniques to master is called the Siyé (from the French essuyer, to wipe). With this technique the drummer (usually a segon player) wipes the drum from the edge to the centre using the tips of his index finger, often with the thumb behind for support. As the finger rubs across the drumhead, a moaning sound is produced. The technique is employed as an embellishment on congas and is often referred to as a “Moose Call”. While the tone is very tricky to learn, it is even harder to do in the rapid succession which is required for some rhythms.
- Haiti: Black Peasants and Their Religion 1960 p 108 "The biggest mama drum attracts gods and spirits "
- Wilcken, Lois (1992). The Drums of Vodou. White Cliffs Media. ISBN 0-941677-16-8., with accompanying CD.
- James Armstrong and Travis Knepper, Vodou Drumset
- Maya Deren, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
"HAITI VODOU: THE VOODOO DRUMS OF HAITI" Various Artsists (Red Eye Music 2010) 
"Angels in the Mirror: Sacred Musics of Haitian Vodou" Various Artists. Ellipsis Arts, 1997.
“Voodoo Drums” – Drummers of the Societé Absolument Guinen – Soul Jazz Records
“Rhythms of Rapture: Sacred Musics of Haitian Vodou” – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways Records
“Vodou: Ritual Possession of the Dead” – Various Artists – Interra Records
“Haiti: Music Of The Voodoo Cult” – Pierre Chariza – Buda Music
“Prepare” - Frisner Augustin and Makandal - La Troupe Makandal, Inc.