Because PBS chose to air the documentary, When the Drum Is Beating, in the same week as the Titanic Centennial, it’s tempting to compare this tenacious Haitian grand orchestra (as they describe themselves) to the now legendary Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley. Historians have documented that Hartley and a number of his musicians gave their lives to lift spirits as the huge ship sank into the Atlantic. His body later was recovered from the icy sea, still clad in his band uniform. Later accounts have embellished this heart-breaking musical scene, just a bit, but Hartley clearly understood the power of music even in the midst of great tragedy. It’s not an exaggeration to say: He played so that others might live.
In a nutshell, that’s the spirit driving the orchestra known as Septentrional—a term that means “northern,” because the ensemble has been associated with the northern city of Cap-Haitien for more than 60 years. These days, there are many films coming out of Haiti, but When the Drum Is Beating soars above others for the unique perspective this documentary provides.
HOW TO SEE THE FILM: Check local airtimes by visiting the PBS Independent Lens website and then clicking on the TV Schedule link. The national broadcast is Thursday, April 12, 2012, but local schedules may vary. Or, you may want to order a DVD of When the Drum is Beating directly from Amazon. Many congregations and nonprofit groups are planning volunteer trips to Haiti in 2012. This film is an excellent orientation to the nation, its history and culture.
TITANIC FATALISM? OR AN ONGOING SEARCH FOR HOPE IN HAITI?
Rather than evoking the band on the deck of the Titanic, I prefer to think of Septen (the musicians also use this shortened form of their name) as similar to the musical testimony of Vedran Smailović—the famous cellist of Sarajevo. The cellist’s story forms one of the chapters in the new Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Daniel Buttry. A classical musician, Smailović decided to risk his life during the worst of the violence in Sarajevo by conducting his own nonviolent, musical campaign of compassion. Even as his neighbors were brutally gunned down in his hometown, and buildings fell apart from the shelling, Smailović showed up day after day to unpack his cello and play from his classical repertoire.
That’s one way to understand the message of Septen. This is not an ensemble with a literal political message in its lyrics. There are other inspiring documentaries about the power of revolutionary music. For example, we highly recommend Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a DVD that also is available via Amazon. Amandla! tells the story of the prophetic musicians who put their lives on the line by writing and publicly performing songs of black South African liberation. In contrast to that political movement in a huge country, Haiti is a tiny, lethal hot house of revolution, death squads, corruption, crime and natural disasters. As a result, Septen’s lyrics have never voiced political messages. Despite the ensemble’s sanitized soundtrack, you will consider it a miracle that these musicians survived for nearly two thirds of a century.
Born in the heyday of Caribbean big bands, the Septen orchestra played in venues like The Rumba ballroom. In recent years, especially since the 2010 Haitian earthquake, it is obvious that there are some tensions between the older members of the ensemble and the hot-fingered younger musicians who now are in the front lines on stage. The classic lyrics echo tales that might have come from the lips of Rosemary Clooney or Frank Sinatra in their big-band prime: a guy chiding a girl over the way she fixes her hair, women who are tricksters, men who are hot heads, all unfolding on the level of personal relationships.
Now, the older members of Septen clearly are proud of their sheer survival. At one point, a white-haired musician takes us to the ruins of The Rumba to vividly tell about a Papa Doc-era incident in which one of the regime’s lethal thugs decided to pull out his machine gun and rake the club. Two men fell, including one of the band’s beloved members.
Even though the documentary is less than an hour in length, we hear lots of music, see harrowing scenes of death and tragedy in the impoverished slums of Haiti and get a quickee tour of Haitian history. Independent Lens host Mary-Louise Parker does a helpful job of setting the stage: “To understand how Haiti survives and Haitains thrive you have to go beyond the news and the history books. The answer is in the music. The rhythm is punctuated by earthquakes. The baseline is born from the only successful slave result in history. The horns call out against years of corruption. And, the vocals are the people. Independent filmmaker Whitney Dow brings us the heart that lies beneath the surface of the once-richest, now-poorest, country in the West. it’s a place where great suffering and artistic brilliance live side by side.”
What will you remember after viewing When the Drum Is Beating? Perhaps it is a scene, late in the film, when the musicians have toggled together a practice session. That means, among other things, making sure that a row of grimy old car batteries are wired together to run their equipment—since there is no reliable electrical service where they are gathered. As they kick off their session, the open doorways attract a number of the young men who seem to permanently rove the narrow streets. They are transfixed. Watching these youths as they watch Septen perform, we wonder: What are those young men glimpsing? Are they discovering a world much larger than the poverty among these ruins?
REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.