When the Drum is Beating, a documentary from director Whitney Dow, gives us a rousing overview of the history of Septentrional, Haiti’s oldest and most renowned band. Latin for “of the north,” the Orchestre Septentrional, also affectionately known as “Septen,” formed in 1948 in Cap-Haïtien, located in the northern region of Haiti. From the militaristic rule of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier beginning in the late 1950s to the present day disaster of the earthquake, Haiti has seen more than its share of devastation. But Septen’s popularity remains intact not only throughout Haiti, but all over the world.
Septen was founded by the late Maestro Ulrick Pierre Louis, who was a saxophonist and the band’s first Maestro. Maestro Louis was innovative for he sought to breathe new life into old Haitian songs rather than play foreign music like other bands. And he ultimately created Septen’s overall sound, which is driven by a pulsating rhythm section that comprises of drums, horns and guitars coupled with the vocals of Michel Tassy, who proclaims himself to be “the greatest singer in the world.” While the rhythm section sounds very similar to Afro-Cuban music, it is Tassy’s wonderful tenor vocals that make Septen’s sound quite distinctive.
The film opens with a local DJ at a Cap-Haïtien radio station explaining to listeners why Septen is "important to the Haitian people.” And we immediately get our answer as we cut to a live concert where thousands of Haitians come out to show their love for the band. “When Septen plays I’m rich, when they stop I’m poor,” explains one man while another woman is furious because she doesn’t have the money to get into the concert: “I’m suffering, my Orchestra is playing and I can’t get in.” From the concert footage alone, it’s evident that the Orchestre Septentrional means a great deal to the Haitian people.
Nikol Levy, Septen’s musical director, explains how Haitian music was often a “weapon against the adversity” based on his own experiences as a boy in Haiti during the 1950s. At the behest of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Levy along with his schoolmates had to witness the execution of two men. After both men were shot to death, Papa Doc ordered his soldiers to leave one of the bodies out in an open street to serve as a warning to those who questioned his authority. Maestro Louis recalled a similar story when his friend and band mate Tony was also killed by Papa Doc’s soldiers at a local nightclub. Not long after that incident, Maestro Louis composed the song “Duvalier for Life,” perhaps more for his own protection. “Music is more than culture, it’s a way of living,” explains Levy. It is an emotional carrier than can express sorrow, happiness and even thoughts that serve the greater good of others regardless if they challenge your own personal beliefs—a tradition, he adds, that dates back to slavery. Some ten years ago, Levy returned to his native Haiti and was later offered the role as the seminal band’s director. Despite the problems that continue to plague Haiti, Levy does not regret his decision for he expresses how much he missed his country.
Dow’s When the Drum is Beating brilliantly weaves together the story of Septen’s journey and longevity as the Haitian people’s band against the backdrop of chaos and change. Nancy Kennedy, Federico Rosenzvit and Hemal Trivedi all do a wonderful job with the editing in the film for the footage of “old Haiti,” where streets are paved and the houses are pristine, seem like a faded memory against images of today’s Haiti for Cap-Haïtien alone is representative of the country’s poverty and overpopulation. While the film sheds light on Haiti’s hurdles—from defeating Napoleon’s troops and proclaiming their independence in 1804 to surviving the reign of terror under self-proclaimed “Presidents-for-life” like Papa Doc—it also serves as a testament to the country’s indomitable spirit. When the Drum is Beating essentially tells us that if we want to learn about the history and beauty of Haiti, just listen to the music of the Orchestre Septentrional.
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