Music, History and Catastrophe in Whitney Dow’s “When the Drum is Beating”

Last June, I posted on Whitney Dow’s music documentary When the Drum is Beating [see New Film: “When the Drum is Beating”] but forgot to post this fascinating interview of the director by Emily Ackerman for the Tribeca Film Festival. Here is a portion of the interview with a link to the full piece below:

Tribeca: Tell us a little about When the Drum is Beating.

Whitney Dow: It’s the greatest music film ever made!

Tribeca: Fair enough! What inspired you to tell this story? How did you first hear about the band?

WD: I had done a film in 2005 about the Haitian elections, and I liked the film, but I came away from it a little disappointed in myself. I felt like I had done what a lot of people do, which is parse the current crisis du jour in order to understand Haiti, the what’s going on now and why is it going wrong? So when it came to this film, there were two things I kept in mind: one was that in order to understand Haiti, one needs to understand its broader historical context, and the other thing is that maybe people could learn more about Haiti and its problems and potentials by looking at something that had worked, as oppose to one of the many things that hasn’t. My producers, Daniel Morel and Jane Regan [. . .] introduced me to the band, and I was a drawn to them because here is a band that was 6 decades old in a country whose average life span is 49 years. Septentrional is a perfect example of an institution that had sustained itself with the intention that the band outlive the current band members. The band has been
around for 62 years, but its musicians are constantly changing. It’s also one of the very few institutions that Haitians have been committed to sustaining. The people in the band talk about giving service. They see the band as something bigger than themselves. [. . .]

Tribeca: It’s really clear in the documentary how vital the band is to the Haitian people. Some of the members say they have visas and could leave Haiti, but they choose not to because they know their people need the music.

WD: Absolutely. I think a lot of the time people, Americans in particular, see stories from places in crisis, and the first question they ask is, “Why are these people staying there?” Well, it’s because that’s their home and it’s who they are. I, myself, didn’t understand this sentiment until I saw the buildings come down on 9/11. The fact that something terrible was happening here made me more determined and committed to stay in New York. It’s my home and I love it here.

Tribeca: When did you start filming relative to the Haiti Earthquake?

WD: We started filming in 2006 and it was pretty much completed in late 2009. Originally the story was more about the remaking of the band under the fall of Aristide. He had been the dominating story in Haiti for the last 20 years, but now it was the earthquake, so I thought, “Oh God, I don’t have a film anymore.” But this event actually gave me a chance to rethink the story I was trying to tell and to open up it up a lot more. This was just the latest in a long line of “earthquakes” Haiti has had to endure throughout history. Columbus landing in Hispaniola was an earthquake; when the French decided to colonize Haiti and import slaves, it was an earthquake; the American occupation was an earthquake, etc. So it gave me the chance to look at the country with fresh eyes and try to understand what exactly the earthquake meant for Haiti and how it was connected to its past.

For full interview and preview, go to

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