Along with a powerful sound, drums can deliver a compelling message. Slave owners in America knew this and made sure to rid laborers of their instruments. Slave holders in Haiti were not as savvy, or slaves there were more resourceful. When brought to the island, scads of African tribes (Yoruba and Dahomey, to name a couple) retreated to the hills and pounded drums, producing rhythms that were prayers to the lwas (vodou gods) and that allowed them to communicate with their fellow captives. Perhaps the most famous drummer was the defiant slave and vodou priest Boukman, who in 1791 used the beat of a drum to summon fellow rebels into revolting against their oppressors. Haiti eventually (in 1804) gained its independence from France, and the sound of the drums persisted, metamorphosing into more than just an SOS.
Percussionists began blending tribal rhythms with native sounds of the Taino and Arawak Indians and created ra-ra, folk music rooted in vodou. The music's still used as a form of communication and is played at festivals to comment on social and political situations or at weddings or funerals to celebrate and commemorate social occasions. A vodou priest named Don Petwo also created his own offshoot by merging Congo rhythms with attributes associated with Oggun (the god of metal, iron, and justice).
Ra-ra and petwo will be among the rhythms making the rooms vibrate this weekend at Power Studios' second annual world music festival, known as the Power of the Drums. Organized by 34-year-old musician and painter Jude "Papaloko" Thegenus (his nickname honors the head of vodou deities), the extravaganza will showcase a slew of musicians including Out Dance, African Magic, Mandala, the Woman Drumming Ensemble, Nicolle and her Kick Ass Band, Gonzalo, and Zac. Also performing their paeans to the 101 vodou nations: the Drum Society, a collective founded by Thegenus, and Loray Mistik, the ten-piece band he leads, which specializes in "vodou pop," an amalgam of traditional drumming with guitars, bass, and brass.
Thegenus explains that "when you play the drums, the drums say everything," but more than just musical artists will appear at the fest. Seven poets will recite their works, a psychic will be available for readings, and a few luminaries will be feted. Matisou Legba and Yatande Boko, Haitian master drummers and veterans of supergroups Boukman Eksperyans and Boukan Ginen, will be in the house. Acclaimed visual artist Edouard Duval-Carrie and poet/musician Pantaleon Gilbeau will also be guests of honor.
Gilbeau was the right-hand man to the late Haitian poet Felix Morisseau Leroy, to whom the revelry is dedicated. An icon for Haitians everywhere, Morisseau, as he was called, disdained the elevated French language, writing poetry and transforming literary works into Creole, the conversational voice of the country. He was best known for his version of the Greek tragedy Antigone, which he reset in Haiti, populating the story with spirits and a vodou priest. Driven into exile in 1959, Morisseau moved to Africa, where he taught for many years, and eventually settled in Miami in 1981. He died this past year at age 86.
Port-au-Prince native Thegenus, who, much like Morisseau, staged contentious plays and performed protest music in Haiti, ultimately had to flee his country as well. He came to Miami in 1987 and soon forged a friendship with the poet, whom he likens to a god.
"It's not only where there are Haitians, but wherever there are oppressed people. Morisseau let them know that they have to speak their own language to be able to communicate," Thegenus says. "I'm an artist and I belong to the people. They understand my music because I sing in Creole. What I'm doing I see as a continuation of what Morisseau was doing. We're fighting hard."