Most people think of Haiti as devastatingly poor, unremittingly corrupt and profoundly wounded by a gruesome colonial past and hideously brutal governments. With the earthquake in 2010, it seemed to slip even further into a nightmare world. When the Drum Is Beating (Tanbou Frape), which had its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 25, doesn't hide from these realities. But as it interweaves the history of Haiti with its most popular and most enduring band, Orchestre Septentrional, it steps inside the consciousness of Haitians and reveals a citizenry with a robust and undying love of life far stronger than any of the horrors that the country has endured.
Gracefully composed, with sensitive details, by American director Whitney Dow, the documentary focuses on the men who make the 62-year-old Orchestre Septentrional so exceptional. But unlike the film The Buena Vista Social Club, about the famous Cuban band the orchestra superficially resembles, the story roams far and wide, providing a context for the group's experience by introducing archival material that illuminates the country's past and sheds light on its situation today.
Dow directs subtly and without sentimentality, revealing the orchestra's life — showing how it puts together its concerts, with everyone bringing his own individuality and talents to the proceedings, even as an older member resists inevitable changes. Music, says one musician, is a way of living, a weapon against adversity, and as the 20-member band tumbles along dirt roads in a rickety bus, we see that their underlying mission is to keep up their own spirits and those of their countrymen.
In breathtaking performance footage, the fusion of Cuban big band rhythms and Haitian voodoo beats drives audiences wild, the musicians soaring along with the music. Equally beautiful are the rich, sensual colors of the country, which, though poor, comes across as far more vibrant than many richer nations. You leave the film with several lasting images, some confirming the need for change and others reaffirming your faith in the life force, as expressed through music.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including the New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.