Markus Schwartz

Markus Schwartz / Haitian Drums

Rhythms Without End - Haitian Vodou Drum Music

Originally published in World Percussion & Rhythm magazine, Fall 2003
Republished on Windows on Haiti.


Even a small sampling of the drumming styles in Haitian Vodou music reveals an incredible depth and diversity of repertoire. Each zone of the country has its own distinct drumming traditions, which are often not shared by drummers from other areas. Several of my Haitian drum teachers, who for this very reason dedicated years to traveling around the country for the research and documentation of their own Vodou heritage, have told me that no one person could ever possibly know all the different drum rhythms played in Haiti. Certainly my own 14 years spent studying and performing Haitian music have lead me to the same conclusion.

A logical starting place for a discussion of Haitian Vodou drums is in the country's capital, Port-au-Prince. Here, and in the surrounding areas, one finds a fairly established regional repertoire of standardized drum music performed in the Ounfò (Vodou temple). With some exceptions, the majority of these Port-au-Prince Vodou rhythms can be placed into one of two main categories: Rada or Petwo. Typical Rada rhythms from Port-au-Prince drumming include: Yanvalou, Parigol (or Twarigol), Mayi, Zèpòl and Dawòmen. Each of these rhythms are actually made up of many different styles, variations, and conversations between the drums. Yanvalou for example, is actually a myriad of forms such as Yanvalou Doba, Minokan, Anbatònnel, etc. One also finds locale-specific styles: dialogues between the Manman and Segon drums which are created and passed down through generations of drummers within a particular community.

The entire family of music broadly termed Petwo is vast as well. A few of the many Petwo drumming styles include Fran, Doki, Makaya, Makanda, and Ti Joslinn. Other rhythms such as Boumba and Kita also fall into the Petwo family. Other Port-au-Prince Vodou rhythms outside the Rada/Petwo paradigm include Ibo, Kongo, Nago, Djouba/Matinik, Maskawòn (or Yanvalou Gede) and Banda.

Presently, Port-au-Prince Vodou ceremonial drummers typically utilize two sets of drums; the Rada and the Petwo, to perform all rhythms, including those that fall outside the Rada/Petwo categories. For example, the Kongo, Ibo and Nago rhythms can all played on the Rada drums, while the Djoumba/Matinik and Banda rhythms are usually performed on the Petwo drums.

  Rada drums from Jacmel, Haiti (Tanbou Lafrik Ginèn) Carved wood covered with cow-skin attached with pegs. (left to right) Manman, Segon, Boula.

 Rada drums from Jacmel, Haiti (Tanbou Lafrik Ginèn) Carved wood covered with cow-skin attached with pegs. (left to right) Manman, Segon, Boula.

 Petwo drums (Tanbou Petwo), Carved wood covered with goat-skin attached with ropes; (left) Manman or Baka; (right) Rale or Ti-Baka; (foreground) Kata

Petwo drums (Tanbou Petwo), Carved wood covered with goat-skin attached with ropes; (left) Manman or Baka; (right) Rale or Ti-Baka; (foreground) Kata

The Kase
The kase, meaning break, is a unique phenomenon present in most if not all of the rhythms of Haitian Vodou, and when one considers that each rhythm also has its corresponding kase, the entire Vodou drum repertoire is effectively doubled. A sudden divergence from the flow of the main rhythm usually initiated by a call from the Manman drum, the kase may serve as a jumping-off point for the Manman player to cross the rhythm, creating tension and release inside the music in a very powerful way. In Port-au-Prince drumming, the kase can be used to display the virtuosity and individuality of the Manman drummer, who sometimes plays very elaborate improvised passages, especially if trying to induce possession trance amongst the Hounsi (initiates) dancing in the ceremony. Serving a different function altogether, the kase can also be used as a fixed section of the rhythm that signals to the dancers to perform specific choreography, and it is in this capacity that the kase is often employed in the Vodou music found in the Lakou (traditional courtyard/communities found in the countryside) of Gonaives.

Unlike in Port-au-Prince, where the Rada and Petwo drums are typically used to play all of the different families of rhythms, the Vodou music tradition in Gonaives, some 80 miles to the North, insists that each particular family of rhythms uses its own unique sets of drums. Souvenance, Soukrie and Badjo, three traditional Lakou in the Gonaives area, are clear examples of this organizational system, where each Nachon, (“Nation”, signifying an ancestral link to a specific cultural past in Africa) has been preserved with its own distinct ritual. Lakou Souvenance is a Vodou community that celebrates its Rada (ancient kingdom of Dahomey) heritage, and is often referred to as the single largest Vodou ceremony in Haiti. Lakou Badjo has Nago (Yoruba) roots, and Lakou Soukrie is where the Kongo (Central/Southern Africa) traditions are preserved. In each of these Vodou Lakou, the ritual prayer language, drums, songs, rhythms and dances all distinctly unique, and are direct descendants of the ancestral and spiritual line to which that particular Lakou is dedicated. In Souvenance, one finds Rada Dawòmen drums, dances and songs all performed in honor of the Rada Lwa (spirits of Haitian Vodou). At Soukrie, the Kongo Lwa are served with their own specific Kongo instruments and repertoire, and at Lakou Badjo, Nago drums, rhythms and songs are used.

 Souvenance Rada drums (Tanbou Dawòmen) along with Master Drummers from Lakou Souvenance including Alfred, George, Vernisio, and Pierre - drums (left to right) Ogan (iron bell), Gwònde; Manman (or Ountò); Katabou.

Souvenance Rada drums (Tanbou Dawòmen) along with Master Drummers from Lakou Souvenance including Alfred, George, Vernisio, and Pierre - drums (left to right) Ogan (iron bell), Gwònde; Manman (or Ountò); Katabou.

When one hears the deep rumbling of Rada drumming emanating from Lakou Souvenance, one can’t help but notice how different it is from Port-au-Prince Rada music**. The voices of the Souvenance drums have a deeper pitch than Port-au-Prince Rada drums, and this difference is accentuated by the Katabou. The lowest of the three Rada drums, the Katabou plays a similar role to the Boula of Port-au-Prince Rada music; beating the second and third triplet notes (the off-beats) of each underlying pulse. However, the Rada rhythms from Souvenance, with names like Akbadja, Wanndjale, Agoni and Kavalyè Hountò, are generally performed at a slower pace than their Southern compatriots, and the Katabou, played with two heavy sticks, adds a distinct texture to the music of Souvenance.

The Rada music from Lakou Souvenance alone takes years to learn. There are at least 19 different rhythms, each with its own kase. While the Port-au-Prince Rada kase can be a free-flowing improvised segment, it's length and intensity determined largely by the individual style of the Manman drummer, the kase in Souvenance Rada music is a predetermined passage within each rhythm's organization. In Souvenance, the kase serves two functions: its performance dictates certain movements to be executed by the dancing participants – telling them when to turn around in place or change directions – and also serves as a bridge between the various sections of a rhythm. Using Akbadja, a rhythm with three sections linked one to the next by the kase, that is performed frequently throughout the annual week-long ceremony at Souvenance as an example, we can see how the kase functions within the music.

After the singer (called Larènn) begins a song, the drums enter one by one. The highest-pitched Gwònde comes in first, stating the appropriate rhythm for the song being sung. The low Katabou comes in next, using a signature phrase (kro-ko-kodop-kodop-kodop) to find its way to its appropriate spot in the music. The Manman enters last, with a powerful phrase which firmly establishes her as the head of this musical family. The drums are now playing the first section of Akbadja. After a subtle call by the Manman, the Gwònde follows into the kase phrase, dialoguing with the Manman for 16 bars or more, in a fixed call-and-response form. When the Manman drum signals the end of the kase, the Gwònde is then free to enter into one of the other two sections of Akbadja. As each section has a uniquely specific dialogue, the Manman follows the Gwònde’s lead with the appropriate response. Each kase bridges one section of the main rhythm with the next, and is timed to give direction to the dancers. 
The dancers move towards the drums from across the earthen floor of the Peristil (ritual space where Vodou dances are held). Once they arrive before the drums, the Manman drum signals the kase. The dancers then slowly turn 180 degrees away from the drums and begin to dance back to the other side of the room, picking up speed and intensity as the drums leave the kase and enter into the next Akbadja section. As the dancers reach the opposite end of the floor, the kase turns them around and the cycle is then repeated. This ongoing dialogue between the drummers and dancers continues late into the night, and throughout the week-long celebration.

A Kreyol proverb in Haiti says "Dèyè mòn genyen mòn", which means "Beyond the mountains, there are mountains". Called pawòl granmoun (words of the elders), Kreyol proverbs are verbal treasure chests filled with multiple layers of meaning. Although literally referencing the topography of this mountainous Caribbean island, this proverb also articulates the concept that the mysteries never end, what lies beyond is unknowable. Counting mountains or drum beats in the magical land of Ayiti Tòma would be an exercise in futility, better to simply appreciate their infinite beauty.

*An excellent resource on the Internet for exploring many aspects of Haitian Vodou including drum music with audio samples can be found at:

**Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti (Ellipsis Arts) - For a clear example of the difference between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives Rada music, consult tracks 2 and 3. Crowing Rooster’s “Mizik Tradisyonèl Ayiti” series just released a 3-CD set called “SOUVNANS” (Volim 4) as well.

Other resources for Haitian drumming:


Books and CDs

  • Lois Wilken & Frisner Augustin. The Drums of Vodou
    Publisher: White Cliffs Media Co; (October 1992)
  • Yih, Yuen-Ming David. Music and Dance of Haitian Vodou: Diversity and Unity in Regional Repertoires Wesleyan Ph.D. Dissertation in Ethnomusicology 1995
  • Gerdes Fleurant. Dancing Spirits Rhythms and Rituals of Haitian Vodun, the Rada Rite
    Greenwood Press 1996




Selected Recordings

  • Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti (Ellipsis Arts)
  • Rhythms of Rapture: Sacred Music of Haitian Vodou (Smithsonian Folkways, 1995)
  • Voodoo Drums (Soul Jazz Records, 2001)
  • Mizik Tradisyonel Ayiti, Volims 1-4 (Grandra, Soukri, Sanba Zao & Djakata, & Souvnans)
    (Crowing Rooster Arts, 1997)
  • Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (also a book and film on video), by Maya Deren

©2017 Markus Schwartz / Lakou Brooklyn