Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards) Talks Haiti and Exploring a Non-Western Musical Tradition

These days, I'm trying to write a new album. Right now it's called Sink-o, but who knows if that will remain. It came from my obsession...

“…If travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

— Pico Iyer

These days, I’m trying to write a new album.  Right now it’s called Sink-o, but who knows if that will remain.  It came from my obsession with the word “syncopation,” which is a miserable sink-o of a word.  Syncopation derives its definition from what it is not: rhythmically speaking, it’s not what you “expect” to happen; it’s a “deviation” from the “norm.”  The word assumes that you are situated in a western music tradition.

Oh, show me the way to situate myself in a non-western musical tradition.

I started by studying drumming with Haitian-born teacher Daniel Brevil out here in Oakland, California.  Learning the Yanvalu rhythm for the first time, I found I had no idea where the downbeat was, the “one” count.  I was sweating, I wanted to stop playing and start explaining why it wasn’t my fault that I was lost and confused.  Eventually, I all but gave up, and when I stopped trying so hard, and I started listening to the entirety of the piece created by the three drums.  I was able to sink-o into a “groove.”

(“Groove” is another overused, vaguely defined word.  This experience felt sort of like sledding — first on sticky, friction-filled new snow, then on a packed-down, clearly defined track.)

Then, on March 27, 2013, along with seven other students and Daniel, I embarked on Daniel Brevil Cultural Exchange Trip #2 to Haiti.

“So why are you going to Haiti, some kind of aid thing?”

“No, I’m going to situate myself in a non-western musical tradition.”



The day after we arrived in Port-au-Prince, we took a trip to Jacmel, on the southwest coast of Haiti, to swim at Basin Bleu, a Travel-Channel-worthy waterfall and swimming hole.  It was Rara season.  Rara is a Haitian festival/ritual/dance party that goes from somewhere around Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday; towns and neighborhoods in Haiti often have their own Rara team, with their own name, patron saint and representative colors.

Rara season means that every so often we’d get stopped (there is only one road) by a parade of drummers, dancers, and parade-goers, some with small bottles of Barbancourt Rhum.  Four or five men play long cornets that look like Dr. Seuss horns and make a thrilling, Seussian sound — usually polyphonic, interlocking, syncopated.  During Rara parade #3, on the road back to Port-au-Prince, our bus was stuck in a sea of partying, parading Haitians, and we seemed to be floating in darkness. The drive that was supposed to take an hour and a half ended up taking almost four, and I was hungry and confused and tired.  I forced myself to open the window wider, stick my head out, and yell some jovial, flawed Kreyol to those who passed.

“Rara, rara!”

This trip was centered around a visit to Lakou Souvenance, a village within the small town of Gonaives, where vodou ceremonies have taken place for centuries.  Around the Easter holiday there are several days of these rituals.

We arrived in Souvenance in time to see the opening ceremony, in which all of the elders of the vodou community surrounded a table, lit with candles and lined with rum and other offerings to the spirits.  I cried, a lot, during this ceremony — I couldn’t believe I was there, in a small pavilion in a tiny village on an island in the Caribbean Ocean called Ayiti.  I just couldn’t believe I got to be there.

We had rented, directly from the people who normally lived in them, several homes to stay in while we were in the village.  We slept on straw mats on the dirt floors, covered only by sheets since it was humid and hot, night and day.  I’d close my eyes to the sounds of the drums, always with the perpetual kick of the boula drum playing the katabou rhythm — two sticks, playing the 2 and 3 beats of a triplet — until the sun was nearly up and it was time for the priests and priestesses to take a brief respite from dancing.  A few hours of relative silence before the merciless drive of the boula would begin again: the offbeats (sink-o.)

Back in Port-au-Prince, we took four days of intensive folkloric and contemporary dance classes at the Ecole Nationale des Arts (ENArts). On these incredible days we were taught to dance by, I am convinced, some of the best folkloric and contemporary dancers in all of Haiti.

I am not a dancer so much, but these days I will dance harder than I ever have in my whole life.  I will also cry some more.  Several times, quietly.

A band of several drummers and singers played for the classes every day, and every once in a while I would lose the difficulty of the dancing in the swell of the sound.  But we averaged about four and a half hours of dancing per day, so regardless of any practice we’d had, we were pushing up against our physical limits.  At the end of the day, I could barely walk up the three steps into the bus home.

After a couple of days, it became clear to us that many of the Haitian students we were studying with couldn’t afford lunch, so Daniel’s family agreed to cook enough food for all of us.

At the end of our visit, we headed to Kafoufey (the Kreyol spelling of Carrefour-Feuilles, Daniel’s neighborhood in Port-au-Prince), which had been hit hard by the 2010 earthquake.  There, we climbed up narrow paved pathways up and up and up until we could look down on the whole of Port-au-Prince.  It was breezy and glorious up there.

A big sign welcomed us: Byenvini Kalifonia. Soon, the sound system was pumping LOUD and we were dancing with the neighborhood kids. For hours we took turns witnessing the kids’ dance circle. We piled up styrofoam containers of food for distribution. (We had helped raise money in the States to pay for making food to feed around 750 people in the neighborhood.) We served and handed out food and I took a seat next to the hot coals to take detailed notes on the making of diri ak pwa, a rice and bean dish.  We had brought 11 suitcases of clothing from the USA, four of which we distributed in Souvenance.  On our last day in Haiti, we organized our remaining clothing donations to distribute at the community service day in Kafoufey.

When we finally sat down to eat our own diri ak pwa that night, it seemed to me that we had been in Haiti for 13 months, not 13 days.

On the flight to Miami, the whir of the plane’s engine sounded like the hypnotic Souvenance drums.  I closed my eyes.  I was crushed to leave but I was very thrilled to hear drums everywhere, in everything.




There were things I had aimed to find in Haiti. For one thing, I was searching for words — lyrics, inspirations, thoughts that would end up as poetry. But I came back speechless. So I’ll have to find those another way.

In dance class back here in Oakland, I know when to press my foot into the floor when we dance Yanvalu.  I’m not thinking about the downbeat; I’m following my teacher and the shadows of the dancers around me and my fingertips follow the bell and my waist follows the maman drum.  Why spend one’s time trying to find the downbeat when that’s not what will get you where you want to be?

Back in my little rehearsal studio in Oakland, I’ve been making a wild mess.  Chaos.  I’m trying anything and everything rhythmic, and sometimes it sounds like an out-of-control beast I cannot begin to tame.  But the rule is: don’t try to get it right, just be in the middle of it.

Absorb-up.  Soak-in.  Sink-o.  Wait for Daniel Brevil Cultural Exchange #3.

(Photos courtesy of Merrill Garbus)

Merrill Garbus is a musician, producer and composer who slams, wails, strums and shakes with her band, tUnE-YaRdS. You can follow her on Twitter here.