Creole Drum (Tanbou Kreyòl)

By Georges Castera
Translated from the Haitian Creole by Amanda Perry
[view as .pdf]

(Poem for two mouths and two stones)

Drums marching say
what I can’t carry
I’ll overthrow
What I can’t
what I can’t
when I can

trakatap katap kan
trakatap katap kan

RUMBLE RUMBLE RUMBLE1

Plop
         Plop
                  Plop

Plop
         Plop
                  Plop
There are drums
you beat with the bones of the dead
for a dry rough sound
after you beat their bellies
to make them speak
RUMBLE RUMBLE RUMBLE

Plop
         Plop
                  Plop
To make them speak
so men2 here men elsewhere
stop dropping straw chairs
on the sea’s sand

trakatap katap kan

when I can
what I can’t
what I can’t
I’ll carry
what I can’t overthrow

My drum beats there
My drum beats there
you caress it with your hand
you caress it with your body
These creole words are my drum
The drum I beat rough
The drum I beat dry

The drums marching say
blood of the young, blood of the old
from above to below

blood of the young, blood of the old
all widths all lengths
all seen spilt in streets

It’s an army that grounds their rifles
that doesn’t guard borders
that doesn’t guard oceans
It’s an army without honor
It’s an army paid
without patriots
that’s wasting en masse
bullets in bursts and blasts
to make people afraid
It’s an army with clothing made
for another army that dresses and undresses it
in plain sight.

Drums marching say
what I can’t overthrow
you can carry
you’ll overthrow
if I can’t carry
what I can’t
what I can’t
you can
trakatap katap kan

What we see is an ant nest beneath dead bones

We see an army in many pieces
We see needy suffering
in all desperate depths
We see testaments written spoken set aside
We see all leaders
with an infant’s awareness
All leaders who were yelling death
bon appetit stuff yourselves full
trakatap katap kan
shelling, seizing, whipping, raping
they are all running
the clothed
the naked
in a tumult of batons and broken bones
burst eyes
                blidip blidap
go back there stay there

Plop
         Plop
                  Plop

Drums take drums give
What you take is for you

for you

trakatap katap kan
trakatap katap kan

when I can
what I can’t
what I can’t
when I can
I’ll overthrow

—1995

 

translator’s note: “Tanbou Kreyòl” appeared in Rèl in 1995, four years after a military coup ousted populist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Though the U.S. would facilitate Aristide’s return to power in 1994, the coup remains widely perceived by Haitians and Haitian Americans as supported by the CIA, part of a long history of American intervention on the island and in the hemisphere. The army that Castera decries in “Tanbou Kreyòl” is most immediately that of the coup regime, but the critique has broader relevance for a military organization that, since its reestablishment under the U.S. Occupation of 1916 to 1934, has only engaged in operations against its own people.

The poem combines its attack on corruption and state violence with a call for mass mobilization within Haiti and among the diaspora. The crux of the poem is its intensely onomatopoetic refrain, which puns on “ka pote” – to be able to bear, or to carry – and “kapote” – to overthrow. How much can one bear, Castera asks, before the only option is to overthrow the existing system? With the same consonants repeated in the line “trakatap katap ka,” the refrain further invokes drum beats, underlining the rich symbolic weight of an instrument central to both contemporary and historical Haitian life. The drum is omnipresent in contemporary Haitian music as well as cultural and religious events, but it is also associated with resistance to slavery, as drums were used by slaves to communicate between plantations and organize revolts. “

In this piece, Castera makes excellent use of Creole’s capacity for contraction, dropping articles, conjunctions, and genitives to create a work that is at once semantically dense and sonically explosive. The poem’s phonetic complexity makes it especially challenging to translate, with nearly every line marked by internal rhyme, alliteration, or onomatopoeia. Despite less overlap in vocabulary, English is perhaps better suited than French to capture these qualities thanks to its more flexible grammatical structures.

For the translation, I made choices based on sound wherever possible without unduly distorting the meaning. Thus, while the multiple rhymes of a line like “gaspiye yon divital/rafal katafal bal” cannot be directly rendered in English, I translated it as “wasting en masse/bullets in bursts and blasts,” combining assonance, slant rhyme,. and alliteration to give an impression of the original.

Tanbou Kreyòl” has been anthologized and translated into French, while Rodney St-Éloi and Maximilien Laroche argue in extensive close readings that the poem is a milestone in the development of Creole poetry. This translation is among the first to give Anglophone readers access to Castera’s work.

GEORGES CASTERA (1936–) was born in Port-au- Prince, Haiti, and writes poetry in French, Haitian Creole, and Spanish. Castera is widely recognized as one of the founders of modern Creole poetry, combining oral rhythms with unpredictable imagery and semantic ambiguity.

AMANDA PERRY is completing a PhD at New York University on Caribbean literature in English, French, and Spanish. Her current project focuses on reframing the Cuban Revolution as a Caribbean event.

  1. The onomatopoetic goudou goudou would later be used to refer to the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
  2. Nèg in the original, derived from the French nègre but usually a generic word for “man” in Haitian Creole. Blan, meanwhile, from the French blanc, or “white,” refers to foreigners of any race, including those of
    African descent.