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Drumming in Haiti and Cuba Research Paper

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Updated: May 2nd, 2019


Drumming is practised in a different manner among various communities depending with their corresponding traditions and music1. The subject of drumming in Haiti, its transition and assimilation in Cuba, as well as its general effect on Cuban music will be analyzed within this paper.

The existence of various instruments in these two nations and the rest of the world creates another area that may require exploration. In connection, the significance of the analysis is discussed within the paper and further details given with regards to how drumming is done in the country: This led to the development of Afro Cuban jazz.

Drumming in Haiti is a section of culture that has significantly influenced music in the modern setting. A proper understanding of this art helps appreciate the Haitian culture, as well as recognize its influence on music. An extensive knowledge on the history of drumming in Haiti, the transition process, as well as the influence on modern music is essential for analyzing this topic.

In that sense, this paper will cover the history of drumming in Haiti, the different types of drums used as well as their rhythm and meaning to the cultures in Haiti and Cuba. The study also looks at the transition and effect of the art in Cuba and how other cultures borrowed from this Haitian way of life.


Music involves the use of various types of instruments in order to bring out its desired elements. The drum is played either by the use of a stick or directly by the player’s hands.According to various sources, the use of drums for musical purposes is known as drumming.

Drumming in Haiti began as a normal practice during Vodou, which is a sacred performance linked with the henotheistic religion. However, the practice transitioned to Cuba with time and led to the emergence of afro Cuban jazz. From that point, many other cultures borrowed the custom, which is currently a common practice around the world.

Haitian Vodou

Brief history

As a developing country, Haiti’s economy grew from the days of slavery that was conducted by slave dealers. The slaves fetched from Africa would have a stopover in this region bordering the Caribbean Sea and Cuba. The slaves had their way of worship.

However, this was considered backward by the westerners who imposed Catholicism to the slaves2. The slaves, for that matter, established ways of worship that would deceive the slave dealers in order to worship their gods secretively.

The African slaves used various types of drums to call on different spirits. In addition, the assigned names to spirits, and call on them for guidance and protection. More so, they consulted the spirits that are believed to grace their ceremonies, which resulted in the emergence of voodoo.

Drumming as a culture

Haiti is a country known for its emphasis on culture and the continued practice of various rituals borrowed from the ancient Haitians. Vodou, also referred to as voodoo is a practise commonly associated with Haitian culture.

The practice is normally considered an exotic perception associated with black magic due to its involvement with the spirit world. However, it is difficult to ascertain the validity of the statement as local participants refer to it as clean practice or culture.

Haitians use drumming as a method of connecting with the spirits with an aim of inviting them into their ceremonies. The involvement of the media in practice imprints this notion of black magic to various people. However, the practice of voodoo goes back to over 6000 years and has its roots in Benin, West Africa3.

The practice of music remains an integral part of the voodoo religion in Haiti. Voodoo as practised in Haiti has rich rhythms and beats that have characterised Haitian culture for ages. The religion remains an integral part of Haitian culture to-date despite the misconceptions from other religions.

It still incorporates the use of drums and various other instruments. However, it is necessary to note that the extensive use of different drums in voodoo ceremonies has helped to transform the culture4.

Aspects of Haitian music


The use of drums is symbolic in many traditional cultures. They were mainly used to mark religious ceremonies. In jazz, the use of the name “drum” refers to a host of drums used to produce a rhythm or used together in a certain performance.

Drumming as a form art practised in Haiti involved the use of various types of drums. They were mainly used for voodoo, a religious ceremony unique with the Haitians.

The drums used in voodoo integrate various techniques that are distinctive to the skill of play. For instance, the Siye is a technique used by the player in voodoo. It involves wiping a drum from an edge to the centre using the fingers to produce a distinctive moaning sound that adds to the rhythm.

These drums were divided into groups in accordance with the spirits they were used to summon. The drums commonly used include the Tanbou, Ti Baka, and Maman among others.

In a real life situation, each drum corresponds to the existing spirits; hence, determines the purposes attached for each drum. Some were played in singular while others were played in groups consisting of a number of drums.

For instance, there are groups that are referred to as:

  • The Rada Batterie
  • The Petwo battier
The conga drums.

The conga drums

The Rada Batterie:

This assembly of drums includes three drums. These are the Maman, Boula and the Segon. This ensemble included other instruments. In this study, however, the focus is put on the drums. The similarity of the three drums is their conical and slender nature, which has also been replicated among several drums globally.

The Maman:

Maman is French word meaning mother. The Maman is the tallest, as well as the deepest sounded member of the three drums within the group. For that matter, it plays the leader’s role in Haitian drumming and specifically in this group of drums.

It is believed to take its cue from the ceremony’s officiating priests, as well as the present spirits. Over several decades, the drum has been used among the people; hence, it is recognized as one of the best drums within the region. In fact, its magnificent look has attracted several replications around the world.

The other uniqueness is its play in that the weaker hand of the player taps the drum directly while the stronger hand plays it with a stick (Baget) of different shapes to produce clicking sounds. While playing the instrument, the player uses both hands, or does it in intervals.

The Segon:

Segon is derived from a French word that means second. It was the middle drum in the group in terms of the role-played and size. It served to produce a base for the Maman to generate its counterpoint. The Maman, just like the Maman, was originally played with bare hands and a stick, but the style of the stick was noticeably different.

The evolvement of music led to the Segon being played with bare hands, specifically in the USA. Recent developments have also seen the Segon replaced with the conga (see picture 1) drums, which are a common feature in both Haiti and the USA today.

The Boula:

This drum remains the smallest in terms of size and the role-played in the assembly of the three. It serves to boost the rhythm by playing the famous ostinato pattern. The player uses two sticks to play the Boula unlike the Maman and the Segon.

The Boula produces an extremely high tone but in agreement with the other two drums. However, Boula’s parts look effortless as compared to the other drums. However, first-class knowledge is required to play it correctly.

The Petwo Batterie:

This group originally consists of two drums, which include the Ti Baka and Gwo Baka. The drums resemble the modern congas but are slender and have slightly tapered bottoms than the modern congas. Therefore, it takes a fully oriented person to identify the difference between some of these drums.

They two drums resemble in appearance; however, are of different dimensions. The skins for the drums have counter hoops made from stiff vines. Their function is to stretch the skin by aid of an existing rope. In addition, there exist wooden wedges lying inside the drum with an adjustable rope for controlling the tension of the skin.

However, the evolvement of music has seen the addition of a drum referred to as Kata to this group. As such, these drums produce a high tone and lead the other instruments in the ensemble. The player uses two sticks. This drum is claimed to hugely increase the rhythm of any music it is added to by the musicians and audience who have listened or played it.

The Tanbou:

This is one of the most common drums played in Haiti. This drum traces its origin to ancient African’s systems of Vodun6. It remains a key instrument in the production of various rhythms. In addition, the Tanbou is easy to play, as its techniques are straightforward.

It is a main indicator of the continued preservation of ancient Haitian culture despite the apparent modernization in other communities. The Tanbou is referred to as the Haitian drum due to its role in culture preservation5.


The rhythm emerging from the various instruments used is of enormous importance to the Haitian people. Therefore, the differences existing between these rhythms determine the drums that should be used for the various functions.

The rhythm determines the drum and not the other way round. The rhythms in Haiti remain classified and grouped in families according to their regions of origin. The main rhythms include the Petwo family, Dahomey, and YaYa TiKongo families.

The Petwo family:

This rhythm family originates from the southern and central regions of Haiti. The drums in this rhythmic family are played after heating in order to generate the required rhythm.Rhythms in this order include the Kita rhythm. The Kita rhythm involves playing of dual goatskin drums by the use of hands only.

Dahomey and YaYa TiKongo families:

These two families consist of rhythms originating from northern Haiti. The Dahomey rhythm involves the playing of triple cow-skin drums using sticks. Rhythms integrated in this family include the Wandjalé and Chasè among others.

Meaning of the drums and rhythms

The drums and rhythms in Haiti are mainly used for voodoo ceremonies, which are prevalent within the country. The Haitians held such ceremonies with an aim of inviting the spirits that they worshipped so that they could receive guidance and protection from such spirits.

As such, it is correct to note that different rhythms generated from a variety of drum combinations were used to summon various spirits. However, several sources indicate that the Haitians use the drums and rhythms for a number of functions other than as an inducement for spirits.

Transition to Cuba

Cuba borders the Caribbean Sea Haiti.. The slave dealers used these two regions to enhance slavery as a practice. These slaves brought various cultures from their different countries to Cuba. Haiti and Cuba interacted in various activities such as trade. The interactions of various slaves with various musical cultures led to the integration of practises found in the various ways of lives in both Cuba and Haiti.

In addition, these interactions caused the filtration of various cultural practises to either side of the countries with time. Key to these cultural practises is drumming.

The afro-Cuban jazz

The afro-Cuban jazz is a form of Latin jazz that originated from the fusion of different African musical cultures. Afro-Cuban jazz involves the use of various musical gadgets such as the piano, congas and drums. These drums came about from their use by the slaves in Haitian culture.

Musicians accepted and redeveloped this form of music to afro- Cuban jazz around 1943. Afro Cuban jazz remains a common practice in modern day. It is practised both in Cuba as well as other countries such as the United States if America6.

The spread of Haiti/Cuba drumming rituals

The Haiti/Cuba rituals are practised in various countries in the modern world. The use of Haitian drums in countries such as the USA amongst others shows a filtration of the culture to other nations.

This happens due to the interaction of various cultures in multinational activities that such as sports, and many other activities. As a matter of fact, these drums prevalent in the modern world, and are frequently used for varying purposes7.


Drumming is an art that is still practised in the modern world. Various cultures borrowed from this culture due to its rich history and uniqueness. The widespread use of drumming in religion in Africa and the rest of the world serves to cement the influence of this culture.

It is therefore realistic that the Haitian and Cuban cultural practices have had a significant influence on several societies, which have adopted the use of their instruments.


Brill, Mark. Music of Latin America and the Caribbean. New Jersey: prentice hall, 2011.

Gebert, Lizabeth. Displacements and transformations in Caribbean cultures. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2008.

Geggus, David. The world of Haitian revolution. Indiana: Indiana University press, 2009.

Kallen, Stuart. Voodoo. Michigan: Lucent books, 2005. “List of Caribbean Membranophone.” Wikipedia. Accessed from .

Manuel, Peter. Creolizing Contradance in the Caribbean. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

Prahlad, Anand. The greenwood encyclopaedia of African American folklore. Oxford: Greenwood press, 2006.


1. Peter Manuel, Creolizing Contradance in the Caribbean (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 23-29.
2. David Geggus, The world of Haitian revolution (Indiana: Indiana university press, 2009), 55-66.
3. Anand Prahlad, The greenwood encyclopaedia of African American folklore (Oxford: Greenwood press, 2006), 102-107.
4. Stuart Kallen, Voodoo (Michigan: lucent books, 2005), 22-24.
5. “List of Caribbean Membranophone,” Wikipedia.
6. Mark Brill, Music of Latin America and the Caribbean (New Jersey: prentice hall, 2011), 33-34.
7. Lizabeth Gebert, Displacements and transformations in Caribbean cultures (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2008), 44-48.

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