Ball of Fire Haiti tribute at Tribeca

New Yorkers and fans were treated to a double-dose of Haiti’s big band Septentrional in April when they performed at the Tribeca Film Festival outdoor “Drive-In” screening and days later, at the premiere of the documentary “When the Drum is Beating,” a film about them.

For 62 years, Cap Haitien-based Septentrional, one of the hemisphere’s oldest big bands, has carried Haiti through trials and tribulations, dictatorships, political upheaval, and poverty, providing a source of pure enjoyment and pride. The band’s nickname is “ball of fire.”

On an unseasonably cold evening, the 20-piece band, which means “in the north,” warmed up a devoted and bundled-up crowd outside the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. A segment of “When the Drum is Beating” screened between sets. Luckily, the band was in the area during one of their numerous international tours, which enabled their participation with the festival.

It was great for the audience when three days later, the whole band was in the house for the film’s premiere, watching the entire film for the first time and available for a Q&A following.

Septentrional started in 1948, the fusion of two groups who decided to get together and not compete. In the film, we are guided through the band’s early days by one of the founding members, saxophonist Maestro Hulric Pierre-Louis. He shows off black and white photos of the earlier band and peppers the viewer with anecdotal tales like when an Uzi-toting macoute shot up the club, killing one band member. Not long after, the band produced a song singing the praises of Papa Doc; they were never harassed again.

The film takes us into the hubbub of one of Haiti’s regional cultural festivals, a fun-filled fair, a complete assault on all the senses. In another scene, at the packed plaza in Cap Haitien, we are on stage with the band; the sweat drips, and friends, family, and fans forget their personal struggles while surrendering to the lyrics, melodies, and rhythms of their home band.

It introduces us to Nicole Levy, the new musical director, a Haitian who lived and made music in the United States for over two decades and returned. Having taken up the mantle, he negotiates the direction of the band balancing tradition with current music impulses. Maestro Hulric, retired but not out of the picture, is always present, called upon to provide the stamp of historical authenticity. One witnesses the aesthetic struggle between an old-timer singer and the musical director who appreciates a newer generation, those who will carry on the band.

Using beautiful artwork, the film shares the history of Haiti from its slave roots, to its fight for independence, to its brutal dispensing revolutionary justice, the killing of the French colonists. So too, using archival and amazingly researched footage, one sees a Haiti during its touristic heyday and an interview with Papa Doc explaining how democracy is relative. Footage by producers Daniel Morel and Jane Regan illustrate a more bloody recent past when gangs invaded and shot up Cap Haitien, in the earlier 2004 pre-coup that forced Aristide from the country.

One viewer commented that the documentary seemed like two films, one on Haiti’s history and the other, the history of the band. Another commented, “I wanted to hear more music.” That viewer wanted to see more focus on the musical roots influences (Haitian compas, Cuban music gleaned from radio shows, bolero, calypso, or vodou rhythms) and also more profiles of present band members and how the music integrates with their lives. We do see this exploration with the musical director.

The film does not shy away from the current Haitian reality in Cape Haitien and how worn Haiti’s second largest city is. Essentially completed in 2009, when the earthquake struck Director Whitney Dow revisited some of the material and includes references to the earthquake, keeping the film current.

In any case, “When the Drum is Beating” holds up as a beacon focusing on the hold–strength and power–of Haitian culture, music in particular. In spite of all odds, the musical institution of Septentrional has endured and flourishes and the film both documents and pays tribute. Maestro died in shortly after the band celebrated its 60th anniversary two years ago. We are lucky to have Maestro on film sharing the band’s history.

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