Saturday, April 07, 2012

Septentrional Plays On: When the Drum is Beating

This is no ghost band. The 20 piece Orchestre Septentrional has been gigging continually since 1948. Essentially a Latin Jazz big band that incorporated Haitian and Caribbean influences into their music, Septen (as they are often affectionately referred to) has weathered tremendous political and meteorological storms. Whitney Dow profiles the resilient orchestra in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in When the Drum is Beating (trailer here), which airs this Thursday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Septen founder Maestro Urich Pierre no longer performs on stage, but he is often present as a sort of chairman-emeritus. Michel Tassy was not the band’s first vocalist, but his forty-five year tenure makes him the outfit’s longest serving veteran. Naturally, he has certain ideas of how things should be, sometimes bringing him into conflict with musical director Nikol Levy and some of the younger members of the band. Yet, to new ears, both the old and new school Septentrional sound rather hot and swinging.

Dow also uses Septen’s story as a framing device for a brisk but somewhat radicalized history of post-revolutionary Haiti. It is not a pretty picture. Despite natural resources that made it the cash cow of the French empire, Haiti became the poorest nation of the region. It was founded upon the only successfully lasting slave insurrection, but has no significant democratic tradition. Indeed, the chaos following the earthquake vividly illustrates the legacy of successive authoritarian rulers, most definitely including Aristide.

Septen played through much of that tragic history, but not without the occasional casualty. However, they were shrewd enough to pay some heed to the prevailing winds. At one point, Septen recorded a tribute to Papa Doc’s wise stewardship of the nation. They hated it, but it still has a groovy beat.

While rather off-the-mark when diagnosing the nation’s ills, Drum documents some passionate and vital music. Regardless of their differences, they come together to play for their fans, the brassy, infectiously rhythmic music always clicks. A gritty portrait of a nearly failed state, yet also a considerably entertaining music doc, When the Drum is Beating is certainly worth a look when it airs this coming Thursday (4/12) as part of the current season of Independent Lens on most PBS outlets nationwide.