Whitney Dow’s lively docu “When the Drum Is Beating” effortlessly manages to weave the more than 60-year history of Haiti’s most celebrated band, Septentrional, with Haiti’s larger annals, from its days as the “Pearl of the Antilles” to 2010’s earthquake. The musicians themselves, with talking heads occasionally filling in the blanks, recount their times, analyzing political upheavals or reminiscing about the death of a bandmate machine-gunned down by one of Papa Doc’s thugs in the middle of a gig. The beautifully synched wedding of music and history merits theatrical exposure before the pic’s slated 2012 PBS broadcast.
Graphic woodcuts depict the slaughter of Haiti’s indigenous population, the importation of African slaves, their inhuman mistreatment by colonialists and momentous 1804 revolution. Garbage-filled streets and crumbling buildings attest to the poverty and decay ensuing decades of misrule, culminating with Papa Doc’s reign, wrought in the once-flourishing republic. Septentronial’s charismatic musical director and several of its members explain the band’s unique mix of a Cuban big band sound with voodoo rhythms. Newer recruits argue with old-timers over orchestrations and vocal stylings; the annual Champette festival, however, drowns all discord in infectious outpourings of harmony.