The drum was born to dance. The child of a tree, the drum knows the pulse of its parent’s vascular system, the kinetic locus between the moisture and nutrients that roots seduce from the soil, and the chemical energy that leaves compose with the sun. The drum, ritually severed from its parent’s torso, never forgets this choreography of water and light, drama and love.
Melville Herskovits observed the birth process during his stay in Mirebalais in 1934, and he described it in Life in a Haitian Valley (pp. 273-77). Drum maker and priest pronounced an invocation, lit a candle, traced a vèvè (sacred diagram), and placed a food offering at the base of the tree. They broke eggs and rubbed the eggs’ living plasm into the bark. They poured libations— And then, they felled the tree. Many steps constituted shaping the three-drum set, most marked with libations and lighting of candles. When the drum maker had completed construction, the community baptized the drums with offerings of food (raw and cooked) and drink. The drums—no doubt energized with food, drink, and candlelight—now began their new life as envoy of the spirit.
The drummer was born to play. Curled beneath his/her mother’s heart for nine months, this child of Ountò (the drum spirit) rehearses daily. When parted from the maternal trunk, the drummer might have the good fortune of a predecessor—a father, an uncle, a grandmother—who also plays or sings or dances, taking an active part in the ongoing beat of the Vodou community. This person or persons can continue to shape the drummer outside the womb. But even without such a model, the drummer will gradually find the pathway to the drum, where he or she will fuse the pulse of the ancestral corpus to the dance of the tree.
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Image of Vodou’s asotò drum superimposed on the bark of a sacred mapou tree, designed by Kesler Pierre