Meeting on February 8—Music, the Climate Crisis, and the Haitian Drum—Jean-Baptise, Dirksen, Grady

February 8th, 2024, 3-5pm, “Music, the Climate Crisis, and the Haitian Drum.”
In-Person and Online.
Fayerweather Hall (Room 513), Columbia University, 1180 Amsterdam Avenue, New York

Music, the Climate Crisis, and the Haitian Drum
At this CDI meeting, we welcome three guests who will discuss the potential novel approaches to tackling the climate crisis when considering music and in relation to combating global antiblack structures. The Haitian tanbou drum provides a potential site to refigure the value of the environment alongside the insistence on making Black lives matter. Our three invited speakers/performers approach these kinds of questions from distinct disciplines and methodologies spanning the arts, humanities, and sciences.

Gaston “Bonga” Jean-Baptiste is a musical virtuoso who has been performing and studying traditional Haitian drum, dance and song since the age of seven. Bonga is regarded as a master of the Afro-Haitian drum, sought-after for his extensive repertoire of pan-African rhythms. A dynamic performer, accompanist, session player and educator, Bonga works on stage, in the recording studio, and in educational settings. He is one of the few drum experts and craftsmen outside of Haiti who continue to build traditional drums using techniques that are centuries old. As a core member of the seminal Haitian roots bands, Boukman Eksperyans and Foulà, Bonga was invited to the U.S. in the ’90s when musicians were becoming a strong voice for the Haitian people. Since then, Bonga has continued to play solo and in ensemble at numerous venues worldwide. He is a featured performer with Peter Yarrow, Grace Jones, Dan Zanes and Urban Tap, to mention a few. His drums opened the NY premiere of the Rolling Stones “Voodoo Lounge” tour and he is prominently featured on recordings by Wyclef Jean and Salif Keita. His most recent release Boula on Buda Musique encapsulates the very spirit of tradition that Bonga has fought so hard to uncover and preserve throughout the years. Ceremony is at the heart of Vodou; however, there is only so much than can be soaked in by a passive observer without having the knowledge to decode what is being experienced. In these recordings, Bonga is documenting and acting as a bridge, an interpreter that provides context found in these highly nuanced spiritual rituals.

Rebecca Dirksen is the Laura Boulton Associate Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University and a 2016-17 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and 2020-21 Fellow at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Working across the spectrum of musical genres in Haiti and its diaspora, Dirksen’s research priorities revolve around diverse environmentalisms, sacred ecologies, and environmental justice; disaster, humanitarianism/aid, and grassroots development; carnival, protest, revolution, and politically engaged music; and applied, engaged, and activist scholarship.

Kevin C. Grady is Director of Ecoculture (, an ecological restoration team, and a Professor in the School of Forestry at Northern Arizona University. With a focus on improving global capacity to restore degraded ecosystems in harmony with local communities and diverse cultures, his work includes planting millions of trees with a wide array of private and public land-managers in the southwestern US and across the globe (Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico). A key component of this restoration program is inviting mass participation in nature stewardship by developing cultural entry points that are accessible to those that might not often reflect on how the value of nature is directly connected to their day-to-day life experiences. The restoration itself is considered as both ritualistic performance art, and Earth art, with the landscape as canvas. By fusing themes into the restoration process such as the historic development of crafting musical instruments (violins, ukuleles, guitars, pianos, marimbas) with the evolution of forestry and conservation industries, or the cultural evolution of plant cultivation with studies on genetic variation in plant response to climate change, we can recognize and celebrate our eco-evolutionary and cultural interdependence. We then ask, do our personal values resonate with our inhabited matrix—our communities and cultures? What can we do to claim our identities, to shout out to the world that I AM HERE, to change social values, to create an ecological democracy to save ourselves from climate change? Plant a tree.