Haiti History & Politics Seen Through Amazing Film of One Big Band

When the Drum is Beating is a film depicting Haiti’s rich musical culture and its legendary and beloved band, Orchestre Septentrional.  Through its sweeping historical narrative and infectious music, the film captures the nuances and complexities that make Haiti one of the most fascinating countries in the hemisphere.  In his exploration of the “Haitian people’s band,” Dow delivers a humane and profound understanding of the pride, resistance, despair and rich artistic tradition of Haiti itself.

New York, N.Y.  I was delighted to attend the World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival of this superb feature documentary that interweaves the extraordinary story of Orchestre Septentrional’s six decades of creativity with the history of Haiti and how it went from being the first free black republic with a huge wealth of natural resources to a shattered country that cannot support its citizens.

Filmmakers and the band Orchestre Septentrional at the World Premiere of
When The Drum Is Beating at Tribeca. Photo: Tracy Ketcher.

I was delighted to attend the World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival of this superb feature documentary that interweaves the extraordinary story of Orchestre Septentrional’s six decades of creativity with the history of Haiti and how it went from being the first free black republic with a huge wealth of natural resources to a shattered country that cannot support its citizens.

The film moves smoothly back and forth in time between the past and present, and gives broad context to the current problems facing the country: from the extreme brutality of French colonialism and the bloody revolution that brought Haitians their freedom to the crushing foreign debt and the 15-year American occupation that helped usher in the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.  How many of us realize Papa Doc was there in large part because of us?

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The film brilliantly depicts the extreme brutality of French colonialism and the bloody revolution that brought Haitians their freedom to the crushing foreign debt and the 15-year American occupation.  Credit: Burning of the Plaine du Cap, Haiti, 1794 (engraving) by The French School (18th century). Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library.

In the film we see the hope that was created by the rise of Jean Bertrand Aristide, and the despair that followed the coup that drove him from power.  To this day, I am still not totally sure what transpired with him – although it seems as if, again, it was the U.S. that controlled the shots.  Most importantly, the film shows how all these events contributed to creating the conditions that made the horrific death toll of the earthquake inevitable: shoddy infrastructures, like bad governments, eventually collapse.

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Jean-Herly Metellus of Septentrional at Plain du Nord. Photo: Daniel Morel.

The inspirational story of Septentrional and its continued existence in a place where little survives – not governments, monuments, art works, cities, lives nor even the very landscape – is uniquely Haitian.  My love of Haiti is tied very much to its ability to keep going.  In America, 9-11 really threw us for a loop.  Compared to other events around the world – Haiti, Pakistan, Japan – it seems smaller.  Certainly the Haitian people have overcome so much more than two collapsed buildings.

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Director Whitney Dow with Septentrional Trumpeter Danilo Andaevil. Photo: Tracy Ketcher.

Through the film’s sweeping narrative, infectious music, tension-filled encounters and the musicians’ passionate dreams, When The Drum Is Beating goes to the core of what makes Haiti one of the most fascinating countries in the hemisphere.  Through my work in Haiti, I plan to dedicate the next 20 years of my life there.  This film helps explain my passion.  The film allows us to see, feel and hear the passion, commitment and joy of Septentrional’s musicians, and through them, the uniquely infectious Haitian spirit.

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Director Whitney Dow and Phillip Seymour Hoffman at the Premiere
of When The Drum Is Beating at Tribeca. Photo: Tracy Ketcher.

I spoke to director Whitney Dow at great length after the film, congratulating him on this masterpiece.  He explained to me:

My film is depicts Haiti’s rich musical culture and its legendary and beloved band, Orchestre Septentrional.Through historical narrative and infectious music, we have tried to capture the nuances and complexities that make Haiti one of the most fascinating countries in the hemisphere.

In our exploration of the “Haitian people’s band,” we have tried to deliver a humane, profound understanding of the pride, resistance, despair – and rich artistic tradition of Haiti itself.

One of the things I love most about Haiti is the music.  Whitney Dow was inspired to make a movie on Haiti through music.  In Haiti, Septentrional is one band that has seen it all.  For six decades this 20-piece band has been making beautiful music, a fusion of Cuban big band and Haitian Vodou beats, turning out thousands of fans each time it plays.

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Septentrional trumpet section, Plain du Nord, Haiti. Photo: Daniel Morel.

At 62, Septentrional has already survived twelve years longer than the expected Haitian lifespan. Led by 80-year-old leader, “Maestro” Ulrick Pierre-Louis – whose son I was delighted to meet at the Tribeca Film Festival – its trumpeters, drummers, sax players and guitarists have made music through dictatorships, natural disasters, coup d’états, and chaos, navigating the ups and downs, the glory and the tragedy that is Haiti’s history.

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Director Whitney Dow and Producer Jane Regan at the World Premiere of
When The Drum Is Beating at the Tribeca Film Festival. Photo: Tracy Ketcher.

In the words of the production company:

The orchestra embodies a particular Haitian trait – the ability to find beauty in places of darkness – which has helped Haitians survive in a place where nothing seems permanent except poverty and want.  As they now face what is perhaps the country’s greatest tragedy ever, the earthquake that killed almost 300,000 in January 2010, they must find the strength to go on.

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Filmmakers and the band Orchestre Septentrional Orchestre Septentrional at the
World Premiere of When The Drum Is Beating at Tribeca. Photo: Tracy Ketcher.

Sitting through the World Premiere of When the Drum is Beating at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, I thought to myself, At last: the definitive movie on the real Haiti.  The red carpet was far from the abject poverty that is much of Haiti, but the quiet dignity and strength of its people was reflected in the faces of – in fact, shone from – the many Haitians attending.

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Septentrional Bassist, Jocelyn Jocelyn “Ti-Bas” Alce and Director Whitney Dow.
Photo: Tracy Ketcher.

When the Drum is Beating
2011 | 84 min | Feature Documentary
In English, Creole with English subtitles
Co-production with Independent Television Service (ITVS) in association with the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and produced in association with TV Ontario, with additional funding provided by the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program.  It is slated for a PBS broadcast in 2012, and was an official selection of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.
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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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