Photos by Daniel Morel
In Haiti, there is one band that has seen it all: Septentrional. For six decades this 20 piece band has been making beautiful music -- a fusion of Cuban big band and Haitian vodou beats – that turns out thousands of fans each time it plays. At 62, Septentrional has already survived twelve years longer than the expected Haitian lifespan. Led by 80- year-old leader, “Maestro” Ulrick Pierre Louis, its trumpeters, drummers, sax players and guitarists have been making 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. They embody 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 perhaps the country’s greatest tragedy, the earthquake that killed almost 300,000 in January 2010, they have to find the strength to go on.
When the Drum is Beating is a feature documentary that interweaves the extraordinary story of 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 back and forth in time between the past and present, and gives broad context to the current problems facing the country: from the 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. 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. Most importantly, we learn how all these events contributed to creating the conditions that made the horrific death toll of the earthquake inevitable.
The 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. Through its sweeping narrative, infectious music, tension-filled encounters and the musicians’ passionate dreams, the film goes to the core of what makes Haiti one of the most fascinating countries in the hemisphere. When the Drum is Beating allows the viewer to see, feel and hear the passion, commitment and joy of Septentrional’s musicians, and through them, the unique Haitian spirit.
The film is a co-production with the 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. When the Drum is Beating is slated for a PBS broadcast in 2012, and is an official selection of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.