Blanketed by the darkness of night about 200 years ago, hundreds of slaves from plantations across the island gathered in the thicket of the tropical forest to strategize on a path to liberation and justice. Their strategy was more than battle plans and scoping out scenarios, however. It was also part political, part spiritual.
As they assembled, unified by their shared vision of freedom, a Vodou priestess danced in the middle of the crowd, ensconced in the rhythmic clatter of the drums, writhing on the ground as thunder rolled across the sky. Rain poured violently onto the earthen clearing and lightning flashed across the night sky.
On that rainy night, the slaves vowed to fight back against their oppressors and chart a new way forward for their descendants.
Two centuries later, on a hot June day in New York City, hundreds of people gathered in midtown Manhattan to denounce the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
However, instead of the forest and night to mask their efforts, they boldly asserted their grievances while surrounded by skyscrapers and luxury storefronts.
As they moved southbound on Fifth Avenue, their bodies sprung up and down in unison in the rain. A music band, armed with drums and trumpets, led the multitude of protesters across the city chanting new slogans of resistance.
“Black lives matter!”
“Justice for Breonna Taylor!”
“Defund the police!”
The band stopped periodically to allow the drummers to form a small circle. Protesters took turns entering the circle, dancing passionately as though in a trance.
Although separated by a vast amount of time, the drums played an integral role for both the African slaves in Haiti and the Black Lives Matter protesters in New York, serving as a political and spiritual tool in both social movements.
An enduring spirit
David Leveque was 13 when he took part in his first political protest in Port-au-Prince. More than 10 years later, he found himself in a familiar scene about 2,500 miles away — during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Brooklyn last summer. Prospect Park was teeming with people, despite social distancing guidelines the state had put in place over COVID-19 concerns.
Leveque and his band, Plezi Rara, stood off to the side of a bike path at the entrance of the park at Grand Army Plaza. With large drums and blow horns in hand, they rocked back and forth, laughing amongst themselves as they assembled to start their march.
On that June day, theirs was one of dozens of concurrent Black Lives Matter protests and rallies taking place across the city. Organized by Rickford Burke, the president of the Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy, Pastor Gilford Monrose, and other Caribbean leaders in Brooklyn, hundreds of people gathered in the plaza. Nearby, the sounds of Bob Marley played and passing cars honked in support as they neared the group.
“This isn’t my first protest,” Leveque, 24, said, while cradling his drum. He started playing at the age of 5. He picked the talent up from his father. “Me, I’m from Haiti. In our culture, we play the drums, we play rara, and anytime there’s a protest, that’s a part of it. It’s in our spirit.”
Their presence was inescapable. The band collected people as they left the park’s entrance and moved down the bike path and turned onto Flatbush Avenue. What had begun as a band of five drummers quickly turned into a procession of dozens.
“There’s a lot happening in the country,” Leveque said, as he walked on the frontline. “We’re just trying to show the president [Trump] we are people too. We’re not animals just because we’re Black. We have to do something about that.”
For Leveque, the only way he knew how to take part in the movement was the way he did it back home in Haiti — with a drum and band in tow.
Symbols of resistance
“The drums are a symbol of resistance,” said Menesky Magloire, a Brooklyn middle school teacher and cultural activist, who’s been drumming for four years.
“When we look at the Haitian Revolution and resistance movements throughout the African Diaspora in Latin and Central America, we saw that African people fought back against their oppression,” he said.
“But in particular, with the Haitian Revolution, one of the first events to launch the revolution was the Bois Caiman ceremony,” Magloire said, referring to that rainy gathering 200 years ago. “There are different versions of this story, but what we know for sure is that our ancestors met, galvanized and started a revolution to eradicate slavery on the island.”
According to the legend, Bois Caiman was the site of a Vodou ceremony, where a ritual was performed to overthrow French rule in Haiti. Dutty Boukman, a Vodou priest and leader of the Maroons, led the ceremony, while Mambo Marinette, a Vodou priestess, performed the ritual.
“During those meetings, our ancestors played the drums, they danced, they poured libation as a symbol of respect and connecting back to the earth, and also as a sign of remembrance so you can know where you’re going,” Magloire said. “The sound, the music, it’s like glue because it brings people together. In every culture, you see that. It’s like food.”
“Drumming is not only a great equalizer, but also a great rasemble,” Magloire added, using the Creole term for bringing people together. “When you beat the drums, people come together, and when people come together, they have to face their truth in song.”
These songs, with drums at the center to keep the tempo and draw in energy, were sung to communicate political injustices and send a message to those in power. Rara bands composed songs that talked about the nation and threw punches at corrupt politicians and thieves, Magaloire said, “It was a form of resistance.”
A spiritual medium
Cultural activist Véronëque Ignace was born and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Haitian Vodou priests. The religion wasn’t a “coming to culture” instance for her, but rather embedded into her life. However, while a student at Williams College studying chemistry, she took a particular liking to dance and performance, particularly contemporary traditional West African dance.
“The drum played so much of a role in how we communicated the stories and the message,” Ignace said. “A lot of the work that we were doing was not just about performing traditional dance, but being able to place it within a context to talk about the current socio-political moment and the current issues that we’re facing as Black people.”
Ignace centered her research at Williams on the Haitian view of liberty, where anyone who identified as Black or touched Haitian soil was automatically free. Her research ultimately led to a fellowship, which led to the performance group that would develop into the Kriyol Dance Collective.
For Ignace, the drums play an important part in sharing stories and traditions that Haitians have tried hard to hold on to.
“This is a practice, rhythm and tradition that we inherited as part of our culture through the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” she said. “What that means is that at its fundamental base, our drums, our songs, and our dance movement are creating a language that we have lost. That is the language that the drums and our bodies are singing. It’s a language that the drum communicates into the atmosphere that our bodies respond to.”
“That’s the thing that everybody is trying to get to when they become a part of that drum culture, whether it’s through a folklore dance class, or through a Haitian contemporary dance class, where you’re mixing in ballet and theater, or whether it comes through people who just want to participate in ceremonies right there at Prospect Park — it’s that thing that we can’t put our finger on that everyone is trying to find.”
While Ignace welcomes the positive reception of drum culture to the world stage, she also cautions against appropriation and disrespectful practices by those not familiar with the sacred instruments and their roles in the spiritual realm.
“Oftentimes, the folks that are creating and holding those spaces for this type of cultural exchange are not necessarily doing their due diligence to protect and not compromise the spiritual makeup of the room,” Ignace said.“Our culture is something that’s rich, spiritual, it’s loaded, it’s so deep, and at the same time there is so much space to make it a commodity. There’s so much space to make it a huge part of capitalism and we need to protect that.”