The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue

Big Drum Lives In Brooklyn!

John Szwed, author of the recent biography of the late Alan Lomax, subtitled his book “The Man Who Recorded the World.” During his lifetime, Alan recorded thousands of hours of traditional music in the American South, the Caribbean, and Europe, while at the same time copying, archiving, publishing, and presenting on vinyl, radio, and paper collections of folk music from around the world. His work triggered the ’60s folk music revival in North America, the British Isles, and Western Europe. Alan discovered and facilitated the careers of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Muddy Waters, and was an early friend and musical mentor of Bob Dylan. Among the songs that he first discovered and recorded living in oral tradition are “House of the Rising Sun” and “Sloop John B.”

Caddy Lazarus John with boula drum, Bellvue, Carriacou, 1962.  Photo by Alan Lomax, courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.
Caddy Lazarus John with boula drum, Bellvue, Carriacou, 1962. Photo by Alan Lomax, courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.

In 1962 Alan conducted an extensive survey of the traditional music of the Caribbean. These largely acoustic and still-unelectrified traditions of music included a repertoire of song and dance unique to the small island off Grenada called Carriacou. There, the descendants of emancipated slaves originally brought from West Africa have maintained music, songs, and dances that are direct extensions of the tribal music of West and Central Africa. These include the tribal names of the nations who perform them, such as Hausa and Ibo. Big Drum is a remarkable repertoire of over 200 of these pieces that still lives on in oral tradition. Big Drum ceremonies are triggered by dreams sent by ancestors demanding sacrifice, libations, dancing, drumming, and singing. Writers Lorna McDaniel and Donald Hill tell us:

A typical Big Drum song is “put” to the lead singer in a throaty, “outdoor” vocal style reminiscent of ancient distant practices. At the song’s repetition the chorus joins the lead singer on the responses. The two boulas—drums made from rum barrels that play slightly lower pitches than the cut drum—then take up the song’s special Nation rhythm. Finally the cut drum—also made from a rum barrel—enters with its improvisation. A hoe blade hit with a piece of steel beckons the Old Parents (the ancestors). Nation dances have distinct rhythmic patterns associated with each ethnic group.

I have come to the island of Carriacou to visit master drummer Winston Fleary. He has spent the last 30 years working in both Carriacou and Brooklyn, where he established the Big Drum Nation Dance Company, which has performed widely in the Greater New York area. Winston tells me, “In the late 1960s I had left Carriacou and was living and working in Brooklyn. At the time I was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which frowns on the old music and dancing. My aunt had been a dancer and singer in Big Drum and had recently passed away. In 1968 she came to me in a dream. She told me, ‘You must take up the drum and play.’ I dug out one of the old drums and put it in my apartment in the hope that I would have no more such dreams. But then a few years later I was at a friend’s house. He played me some ethnomusicological recordings made in Carriacou and I heard my aunt singing. I was transfixed and knew what I had to do for the rest of my life. I soon returned to Carriacou to learn to perform the art of the Big Drum from the old living masters. Since that day I have never stopped playing. Later on in New York I met and befriended Alan, who supported every aspect of my career.”

Winston and I are slowly walking up the steep hills of Carriacou to the farm and homestead of David Gibbs Francois, one of his drummers. I hand him a CD from the Lomax archive. He puts it on his player and he is stunned as he listens to the Big Drum recordings of Sugar Adams made by Alan in 1962. “Those men could sure lash those drums,” he proclaims with a beaming smile. Soon after, he and Winston and the other men play the three drums (jokingly referred to as Mama, Papa, and Baby) and sing some of the old songs. I cannot hear any difference between what they play and the recordings from 1962. It is clear that despite the lack of any formal institutional support, this tradition is still alive.

David tells me, “When the Big Drum is played for our own satisfaction it takes a whole evening. There is beer and Jack Iron rum to be drunk, animals slaughtered and barbecued. The dancers and musicians speak to each other through drumming and song. They move and we play. We play and they move. It is a conversation. There is a lot of variation.”

More than two decades ago the late Alan Lomax established an institution called the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) to continue his work for the preservation and dissemination of traditional music around the world. As a performer, folk music collector, and ethnomusicologist, Alan’s work has provided models for my own work in those fields. In 2005 I became a part-time consultant for ACE, and this year I joined the organization as Director of Research and Development. ACE has published over 100 CDs from the Alan Lomax Archive with Rounder Records, and because of the importance of the Big Drum repertoire to the history of Caribbean and Afro-American music, three of them are dedicated to the music of Carriacou. (See for example This May we will sponsor four lecture demonstrations by Winston Fleary on the Big Drum repertoire in the Greater New York area. We are also planning a documentary film on the Big Drum phenomenon, to be narrated by Winston.

Winston estimates that it would take a week to 10 days to record and videotape all the major variations of the Big Drum repertoire in its natural context, performed outside in the evenings and not as a piece of stage-based folkloric recreation to please an international audience, which is what he has done successfully in New York. As the late afternoon turns into evening, he says, “Once all this material is properly recorded and documented there will be enough for the younger musicians to keep the fire burning. We must save this music for the next generation. Then perhaps I will go back to farming and livestock-management on a full-time basis. As there is still so much work to do, I intend to avoid joining the ancestors for some time.” 


Geoffrey Clarfield

Geoffrey Clarfield is a musician, ethnomusicologist, and anthropologist, and a Toronto-based, freelance writer and long term Consultant for the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in Manhattan.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues