Bonga and the Vodou Drums of Haiti, an instrumental and dance ensemble that performs traditional Afro-Haitian roots music, made their first appearance at St. Scholastica on Feb. 3, 2010, at the community wide benefit, “With You, Haiti Cherie,” in the Mitchell Auditorium for Haiti relief.
On Jan. 12, 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti and reduced much of its city to rubble. The earthquake left a path of devastation, with the death toll mounting to more than 200,000 people. Even in such trying times, many are willing to lend a helping hand, and the Haitian culture continues on, even in Duluth, Minn.
Bonga leads the multitalented group with intricate Vodou rhythms. He, son Tiga Jean-Baptiste, their cousin, and a fellow cellist use handcrafted drums and several other instruments to play complex rhythms that many do not see beyond the land of Haiti.
Michelle Lee, news anchor of KBJR-TV Channel 6, was master of ceremonies. The benefit featured a variety of local performers including the St. Scholastica Hand Drum Ensemble, Rudy Perrault- a conductor and composer who is Director of Orchestra and professor of violin/viola at UMD, the Echoes of Peace Choir, and the choir of the First Lutheran Church of Duluth.
Storyteller Elizabeth Nordell, who has taught in Pennsylvania, Mexico, the Honduras, and Haiti in the elementary bilingual programs, also performed at the event. In Duluth, she teaches storytelling and has organized Tellebration, The Food and Farming Story Tent, and Courageous Stories and Tender Tales.
The event raised just under $10,000, and donations are still rolling in. For supporters who could not attend the event, donations will be taken online at haiti.css.edu and via text message
The following day, Bonga and his fellow band mates presented a dynamic workshop that featured percussion technique and hand and stick drumming. Through demonstration and hands-on experience, Bonga and his band taught the audience rhythms and songs including Ibo, Kongo, Nago, Mayi, Rara, Banda, and many more.
Most of the music Bonga creates is improvisational, while very little of it is actually written down. Several students and CSS music instructor Jeremy Craycraft got up on stage and took part in the improvisation by creating beats together. “See,” said Bonga, “drumming comes from your heart. It’s about what you feel.”
The drums, however, also have a spiritual significance to them. They are crafted, baptized and utilized as a sacred instrument. “Without the drum, the temple is dead,” Bonga said.
The term "voodoo" (pronounced v-oh-doo) was demystified and refined as "Vodun,” which means a complex divination system and traditional way of life in Haiti. The Creole songs sang during these ceremonies describe struggle, sacrifice, and celebration. “We love what we’re doing,” Bonga said. “If you don’t love it, it’s not going to work.”