Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas

Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas

by Martin Munro

Paperback(First Edition)



Long a taboo subject among critics, rhythm finally takes center stage in this book's dazzling, wide-ranging examination of diverse black cultures across the New World. Martin Munro’s groundbreaking work traces the central—and contested—role of music in shaping identities, politics, social history, and artistic expression. Starting with enslaved African musicians, Munro takes us to Haiti, Trinidad, the French Caribbean, and to the civil rights era in the United States. Along the way, he highlights such figures as Toussaint Louverture, Jacques Roumain, Jean Price-Mars, The Mighty Sparrow, Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, Joseph Zobel, Daniel Maximin, James Brown, and Amiri Baraka. Bringing to light new connections among black cultures, Munro shows how rhythm has been both a persistent marker of race as well as a dynamic force for change at virtually every major turning point in black New World history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520262836
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/16/2010
Series: Music of the African Diaspora , #14
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Martin Munro is Associate Professor of French and Francophone Literatures at Florida State University.

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Different Drummers

Rhythm and Race in the Americas

By Martin Munro


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94740-5


Beating Back Darkness

Rhythm and Revolution in Haiti

In many crucial ways, the history of the modern Caribbean begins in Haiti in 1804, with Jean-Jacques Dessalines's declaration of independence. It was here that the fallible nature of colonial military power and, more importantly, of colonial ideology in the Caribbean was first exposed. The Haitian Revolution that began in 1791 dealt blows to the notion of innate European, "white" superiority, sending cracks through the colonial edifice that could never be repaired and that, over time, brought the whole enterprise crashing down. The events in Haiti effectively realized the lofty egalitarian ideals of the European Enlightenment: played out on the battlegrounds of colonial Saint-Domingue, the struggle between enslaving, domineering supremacism and liberating universalism demonstrated how notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity could not be applied exclusively but had to include every race, nation, and individual. For this reason alone, Haiti is the single most important point of origin for the Caribbean and perhaps also for broader New World black communities.

If Haiti is an exemplar for the postcolonial New World, it is also unremittingly, radically atypical. Haiti is at once the center of Caribbean history and an unknown entity, remaining on the outside, ignored, and misunderstood. To learn about Haiti is to come to know paradox, to understand how its truth often lies in contradictions and disrupted logic. This chapter explores one of these Haitian paradoxes: the way the fabled first black republic in the New World has long neglected and repressed, or else selectively appropriated, the "blackest" parts of its culture, chiefly its religion and its associated rhythmic music and dance. In postcolonial Haiti, rhythm, so long feared by the French colonists as an instigator of slave revolt, was subjected to renewed state control as the nation struggled to reconcile its modern, Europeanized idea of itself with its dynamic, African-rooted yet ever creolizing cultural traditions. Beginning in 1800 with François Dominique Toussaint Louverture's attempts to control Vodou dances, I consider some of the roles music played in the revolution and pay particular attention to the evolution of the Vodou religion in the nineteenth century and the roles of drumming and dance in religious rituals. Drawing on Haitian ethnography, literature, and musicology, I analyze the evolving relationship between the intellectual elite and Haiti's popular culture, from the nineteenth-century Francophile renunciation of it to the early- to mid-twentieth-century embrace of it as an authentic repository of the "Haitian soul." At every stage, rhythm has been an omnipresent albeit contested and shifting element of Haitian culture. In addition, I pay attention to how the rhythms and ideas of Saint-Dominguan refugees migrated to other Caribbean and New World sites and became integral parts of the emerging cultures there. Just as the ideas of the French Revolution could not be confined to France, so too those of the Haitian Revolution spread over the New World and blew across land and sea in pamphlets, tales, song, dance, and rhythm.


In January 1800, Toussaint Louverture, one of the great leaders of the slave insurgency in Saint-Domingue, issued a decree that outlawed "nocturnal assemblies and dances." Peaceful cultivators, he said, had been led away from their work in the fields by men with "bad intentions" to gatherings and dances, principally "those of Vaudoux." Such practices were contrary to the principles of true "friends to their country" and were subversive activities that would henceforth be punished physically or by imprisonment (quoted in Dubois 2004, 244). A year later, Toussaint's constitution brought further restrictions on popular black culture and declared that Catholicism was to be the only "publicly professed" religion in the land. Taking care to limit the extent of individual priests' "spiritual administration," Toussaint promoted Christian family values, "civil and religious marriage" and general "purity of habits" among the populace.

At the same time, Toussaint's administration, eager to reestablish the lucrative plantations that had made Saint-Domingue France's most profitable colony, was encouraging emancipated slaves back onto the land, often with a degree of coercion. Most of the newly freed slaves had been born in Africa, and once liberated their natural tendency was to return to the subsistence agriculture practices of African village life, not to the plantation. Toussaint was deeply concerned about this tendency and about the numbers of the newly freed who had adopted an itinerant, wandering way of life (Bell 2007, 203). "Work is necessary, it is a virtue," Toussaint had said in March 1795, and "all lazy and errant men will be punished by the law." A few months later, he wrote to the French general Étienne Laveaux, saying that he was "busy gathering the cultivators, the drivers, and the managers, exhorting them to love work, which is inseparable from liberty" (quoted in Dubois 2004, 188). In 1800, the plantation, long the site of slaves' violent subjugation, was being reimagined by Toussaint in benevolent, familial terms as a "factory that requires the union of cultivators and workers; ... the tranquil refuge of an active and loyal family, whose father is necessarily the owner of the soil or his representative" (quoted in Dubois 2004, 244). The common cultivators, as members of the plantation family, were not permitted to leave the "home" of the "father," the owner of the soil, who in many ways assumed the power and status of the planters that the slave armies had taken such pains to remove. In a final, cruelly ironic twist, Toussaint stated his intention of taking the "appropriate measures" to bring new cultivators from Africa to bolster his own workforce, which had been seriously depleted during the course of the revolutionary wars. In effect, Toussaint was contemplating cooperating with merchants to transport men and women from Africa to work as cultivators on Saint-Domingue's plantations (Dubois 2004, 244–45).

Toussaint's constitution was articulating a classical political claim, which drew on the previous policies of both Republican France and Republican Saint-Domingue and which asserted the responsibility of citizens in supporting and sustaining their nation. As Laurent Dubois says, however, such claims, in the power they gave to a "potentially abusive state" to define citizens' responsibilities, inevitably created contradictions between liberty and obligation. In the case of Saint-Domingue, these contradictions were particularly striking, as Dubois argues:

On the one hand, the project that all of the people of Saint-Domingue were called upon to support was a project of emancipation, of freedom from racial hierarchy, of liberty for all in a land once dominated by slavery. At the same time, ex-slaves were given very particular responsibilities that were defined by their old status: those who had once worked as slaves were now free, but they were required to work as cultivators. To defend freedom, they had to surrender their freedom to the new state. (2004, 245)


A similar paradox existed in terms of culture and rhythm. Toussaint's 1800 decree prohibiting Vodou dances meant that, in order to be free politically, the ex-slaves had to surrender their cultural freedom to Toussaint's state, which amounted to a perpetuation of the racist policies of popular cultural suppression that had characterized French colonial rule. Indeed, the control of Vodou ceremonies was nothing new in the colony. They had already been prohibited by the Code Noir of 1685, and the Catholic Church had worked assiduously toward eradicating African "superstitious" practices. Its missionaries were responsible for a series of police rulings that restricted the movements of slaves and controlled the use of objects associated with Vodou rituals (Gisler 1965, 78–79). In particular, the Police Rulings of 1758 and 1777 prohibited the slaves "under penalty of death" from meeting during the day or night under the pretext of celebrating weddings or marking the deaths of fellow slaves. Drum playing and singing other than when engaged in field labor were also prohibited. The 1758 ruling stipulated, moreover, that slaves were not to gather either "near the house of their master or anywhere else, and even less in and around remote places" (Desmangles 1992, 36). In 1765, the dancing of the calenda was expressly forbidden, and a special division of the rural police was set up to ensure such dances did not occur (Garraway 2005, 355, n. 30). Following Toussaint, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion were to prohibit dances, fearing, like their predecessor, that the dances might disrupt the good order of the new Haitian state (Barthélemy 2000, 159).

The uprising begun in 1791 had spectacularly swept away the institution of slavery, but many of the racist ideas and cultural prejudices that had underpinned slavery remained strong, both among slave leaders such as Toussaint and among those in French politics who promoted the interests of the plantation owners. For example, in early 1795, less than a year after slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Marie-Benoît-Louis Gouly, a planter and representative from the Indian Ocean colony of Ile-de-France, made a speech at the French National Convention in Paris that portrayed the former slaves of Saint-Domingue in crudely racist terms. His portrayal made a direct link between blacks' intellectual inferiority, their sensory limitations, and their cultural practices. To grant freedom and citizenship to people whose souls were accessible "only through the organ of hearing," who were animated only by the "loud sounds of a drum or a voice expressed with force," whose eyes had no "vivacity," and who generally presented the "image of stupidity" was, Gouly argued, patently absurd (quoted in Dubois 2004, 194). Although there was nothing new in Gouly's pro-slavery racism, it is interesting in terms of music and dance that he connects the heightened (or perhaps, in his view, overactive) auditory sense of the ex-slaves with the purported deficiencies of their other senses and faculties. Dance, drumming, and rhythm, he implied, functioned contrarily to the other senses and dulled the intellect. Toussaint's 1800 decree seemed informed to some extent by this kind of longstanding racist view of black musical practice. Moreover, it seemed to negate or deny (or, at best, fail to recognize) the crucial role that popular culture—dances, songs, drumming, religion—played in fomenting the spirit of revolt and common black identity that had helped the slave armies hold strong against the many and diverse adversaries they had faced since 1791.

It is significant in this regard that the founding moment (or perhaps founding myth) of the Haitian Revolution was a ceremony of music, dance, drumming, and religion. Even if the truth of the Bois-Caïman ceremony has been clouded by a lack of reliable contemporary sources, most historians agree that, in mid-August 1791, Dutty Boukman, a Vodou priest and former driver and coachman, led conspiring slaves in a secret gathering on a plantation in northern Saint-Domingue, somewhere between the Gallifet plantation and the town of Le Cap. Dubois suggests that there may have been two ceremonies in August 1791, and he argues for Bois-Caïman's importance as a symbol less of a specific, historically knowable event than of the achievement of Saint-Domingue's slave insurgents and the "creative spiritual and political epic that both prompted and emerged from the 1791 insurrection" (2004, 102).

Music and religion were closely intertwined in this "spiritual and political epic." Religious practices and ceremonial dances facilitated the organization of the rebellion and fostered a sense of community and identity among the diverse ethnic African groups and between them and the Creole slaves (that is, those born in the New World). In contrast to the whites, whose dances were held strictly on secular, social occasions, the blacks incorporated dance and music into their religious rituals (and vice versa), their funerals, and their wakes, and therefore music was less of a social entertainment than a link with a metaphysics and an identity that had their roots in Africa but were inevitably mutating and being translated into their new context. Even as African cultures and religions were transported across the Atlantic, they were changing: religions fused with the rituals and symbols of Catholicism, and the Christian saints' identities were often doubled with African deities in the new syncretic religion. Thus, one white observer noted in 1777 that at the community of La Fossette, just outside Le Cap, there was a burial mound called Croix bossale where unbaptized Africans, or bossales, were buried. Near this site, he noted, the blacks held their dances on Sunday nights or holidays, so that it became "a theater of fury and pleasure" (Moreau de Saint-Méry 1958, 2: 543–44). These dances can therefore be read as acts of memory, as a means of remaining close, spatially and culturally, to the dead. It is significant that the observer juxtaposes the apparently contradictory states of fury and pleasure: the dance and the music, it seems, were means of expressing and partially exorcizing anger and thereby of attaining pleasure. In the alienating, mechanized world of the plantation, religious ceremonies, music, and dance offered slaves more familiar rhythms and rituals as well as a group identity that the plantation owners and colonial administrators sought largely, though not consistently, to negate and nullify. The Code Noir had specifically prohibited slaves of different masters to gather "under the pretext of weddings or otherwise," especially in rural areas, but the regulation was never enforced completely or consistently by masters, some of whom apparently considered slave gatherings as harmless diversions or perhaps as events that purged to some extent the slaves of their frustrations and in this way helped ensure a less agitated and more compliant workforce (Sala-Moulins 1987, 122–24). Religion, rituals, dances, and music became for slaves a "space of freedom" (Dubois 2004, 43) in an otherwise restrictive society, and they helped create the social networks and consciousness of difference that proved vital to the future success of the revolution.

Partly because of its close association with African ritual, music was a source of fear for white Europeans. The auditory aspects of the slave armies' style of warfare were intended to unnerve their adversaries and included the beating of drums, howling, whistling, and trumpeting on large conch shells (Arthur and Dash 1999, 39). The slave armies' auditory elements were particularly striking to one French soldier, who reported how the slaves advanced to the accompaniment of rhythmic African music or else in a silence that was broken only by the "incantations of their sorcerers" (quoted in Dubois 2004, 101). Similarly, French naturalist Michel Étienne Descourtilz, who visited Saint-Domingue in the late 1790s, wrote of African fighters marching into battle "with a supernatural intrepidity, singing Guinean songs, as if possessed by the hope that they would soon see their old acquaintances" (quoted in Dubois 2004, 295–96). The close connection between religion, music, and slave insurrection was further confirmed in the account of another contemporary, who described how, before battle, religious leaders prepared ouanga, or fetishes, and thereby "exalted the imagination of the women and children, who sang and danced like demons" (quoted in Dubois 2004, 101). In addition to songs and drums, and when more conventional instruments were not available, slave armies would fill pots with stones to increase the noise that accompanied their attacks and thereby, it seems, spread fear and confusion among the enemy ranks (Dubois 2004, 140). The whites' fear of slave music and the music's capacity to unnerve whites were heightened in one particular case in October 1791 when, in the initial stages of the insurrection, a group of whites were taken prisoner by slave insurgents and led to a camp in which the highest ranking slave leader was the notorious Jeannot Bullet (commonly known simply as Jeannot). One of the white prisoners, a local official called Gros, wrote later of how the prisoners were kept chained and given only basic rations. Moreover, he wrote, the "terror" of the prisoners worsened at nights because of the black insurgents' "sad songs, accompanied by instruments, [which] seemed to be a prelude to new tortures" (Dubois and Garrigus 2006, 104). Later, too, when Jeannot had some prisoners taken to be executed, "chopped to pieces or strung up and bled to death," the death march was accompanied by the sound of a drum (quoted in Dubois 2004, 123). And when the slave leader Boukman was decapitated and his body burned in view of the rebel camps by the French in mid-November 1791, the insurgents immediately began a three-day calenda dance (Dubois and Garrigus 2006, 107). The insurgent slaves' music in these cases seems to have been used deliberately to heighten the mental torture of the white prisoners, who had long feared the hidden messages and meanings of slave music and its capacity to retain and incite a sense of black subjectivity and resistance that could not be completely nullified by the processes of slavery. The music contained, in a sense, a prophecy of defiance and overcoming that was being realized graphically in the grotesque reversals of torture and suffering at Jeannot's prison camp.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Slaves to the Rhythm 1

1 Beating Back Darkness: Rhythm and Revolution in Haiti 24

2 Rhythm, Creolization, and Conflict in Trinidad 78

3 Rhythm, Music, and Literature in the French Caribbean 132

4 James Brown, Rhythm, and Black Power 182

Conclusion: Listening to New World History 214

Notes 227

References 251

Index 269

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"A compelling interdisciplinary exploration of rhythm and sound in the circum-Caribbean."—Oxford Journal

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