Places that Matter

Gran Bwa

Haitian drummers at Gran Bwa, August 2013, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Haitian drummers at Gran Bwa, August 2013, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Venerated Haitian gathering site in Prospect Park
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Located in the southeast corner of Prospect Park astride Prospect Park Lake, Gran Bwa has been a venerated gathering place for Haitians living in New York City since the site was established in the mid-1980s. For more than two decades, community members have gathered at Gran Bwa every Sunday from the beginning of May through mid-September to play Haitian music, dance, sing, tell stories and strengthen social and cultural connections.

Haitians have always felt deep pride in their revolution, which established the world's first enduring black republic. On August, 14, 1791,Vodou priest Boukman Dutty presided over an important slave social gathering at Bwa Kay Iman, in the colony then known as Saint Domingue. According to legend, the ceremony, featuring drumming and sung prayer, invoked the gods of Africa to help the slaves win freedom. The Bwa Kay Iman gathering would mark the beginning of the largest and only successful slave revolt in history, and is now known as the start of the Haitian Revolution.
On one Saturday each August, the community and friends of Haiti gather at Gran Bwa to commemorate Bwa Kay Iman. To the tones and rhythms of the drums, Haitians in Brooklyn remember the past and celebrate their present in New York City. Despite the forced removal of a log circle that for many years provided seating for Gran Bwa drummers, and notwithstanding the increasingly complex permit application process that organizations must navigate to use the Park (even for longstanding cultural events), both the regular Sunday gatherings and the Bwa Kay Iman ceremony continue to thrive at Gran Bwa as of 2013.
Haitian artist Deenps Bazile, founder of Gran Bwa, originally worked as a painter before moving to Brooklyn in 1979. But when he visited Prospect Park in 1985, Vodou spirits (Vodou is a religion that combines elements from West African religious traditions and Catholicism) instructed Bazile to sculpt a tree trunk into a potomitan, a Haitian Kreyòl term meaning “center post.” A potomatin is an important construction that holds up the roof of the peristyle, the part of the Vodou temple where dancing takes place. A potomitan also functions as a conduit through which Vodou spirits cross over from the other side. Bazile carved the Prospect Park potomitan with images of a large human head, two small human faces, a lion and a legba (a Rada spirit who sits at the crossroads where the living and the dead converge, and who is called upon near the beginning of a ceremony to open the gate). For many years, this potomatin marked the area that became known as Gran Bwa.
“Before I used to call it Tèt Tonton (meaning literally “head,” and “uncle” or “older man”), Bazile says.And then somebody tells me, this looks like Gran Bwa. But I did not know about Gran Bwa.” Gran Bwa, meaning literally “big wood” or “big forest,” resonated with Bazile, who recalls that the area, now largely cleared of growth, was once densely covered with small trees. The name also encapsulated Bazile’s reverence for the relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds. “What I learned about Gran Bwa is it is that it is the superior legba of the forest. If you want to go inside the forest, you have to call Gran Bwa first. It is the one who gives you passage. Gran Bwa is a spirit who gives the ason (rattle of the priesthood). And then Gran Bwa is also will. And it is for everybody. If you’re sick, it gives you life, food, oxygen, water, air. Everything.” As he notes on his Wordpress website, “the spirits of the park easily connect me to the Vodou spirit of Gran Bwa. The park is alive! The trees, the lake, the breeze, the sun and the people makes me reminisce of AYITI (Haiti)!” The Gran Bwa site is indeed potent, but its power is activated by the regular presence of Haitian tradition bearers.
While carving the potomatin and other logs and stumps, Bazile would often bring his two young sons, along with their drums. Although he did not consider himself a proficient drummer at the time, Bazile saw that Gran Bwa’s expansive, natural context provided the perfect setting for keeping Haitian cultural traditions alive in Brooklyn. By the early 1990s, Haitian master musicians, singers and dancers were a regular Sunday staple at Gran Bwa, where they performed for hours and instructed amateurs and novices in Haitian folkloric technique.
Bazile’s 19 year-old daughter Erzuli Guillaume is now a professional dancer. While her brothers joined the drummers, Guillaume grew up performing Haitian folkloric dance at Gran Bwa. “What I remember is a lot of songs,” she says, “and a lot of drum playing, and just everybody coming together. And stories being told by my grandma and grandpa. Even though I was little and didn’t really understand, I would just sit down and listen anyway. It was kind of like I was sucking in the culture.” In describing the elements required to master Haitian folkloric dance, Guillaume insists, “you definitely need to have hips. You definitely need to have shoulders. For me, you have to be more connected with nature and with the earth.”
And then there are the drums. “Drumming! Definitely. It gives you the motivation in your heart just to start it. It’s like the drums are the key to your heart. Haitian dance and live drumming have to come together.” Even though she preferred to dance, Guillaume and her older sister learned drumming alongside their brothers. And eventually, Bazile joined the drummers at the circle, too. The potomatin may have marked the center of Gran Bwa, but an iconic circle of logs-turned-drummers' seats defined the space for many years. Both the sculpture and the logs are gone now, having been removed over night in 2012, but the musicians are not deterred. The stationary drummers still play on Sundays in the late afternoons, and after the sun goes down, the Raras begin to assemble, drum, dance and sing.
Raras are the walking men who perform Haiti’s processional grassroots music. Rara is played by musical ensembles that emphasize drums and percussion, with an important signature sound contributed by instruments from the trumpet family called banbou. Rara bands often feature three or four banbou of different sizes, which, in turn, produce different pitches. (The larger the banbou, the lower the pitch). While blowing into these trumpets, musicians beat rhythm patterns on the instruments' elongated exteriors. Rara musicians are usually on the move as they play, sing and dance.
In Haiti, Rara season corresponds with the end of Carnival. Typically, Raras start to play out on the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday. Ethnomusicologist Dr. Lois Wilcken has worked in Haiti and with the Gran Bwa community for decades. She explains, “the bands start out from their base and start processing through the streets or the countryside (it was originally in the countryside) and they can go for hours and hours and hours!” The three most holy days of the Rara season are Good Friday, Holy Saturday and its culmination on Easter Sunday.
Rara bands play during secular or political occasions as well, like soccer matches and rallies. And they innovate on tradition, both in Haiti and in New York. There are even stationary Raras who play at the Prospect Park Haitian drum circle. But at the Park, the mood and energy palpably elevate when the processional Rara troupes, like Brother High and DJA-rara, come through Gran Bwa and begin to pick up participants and momentum.
Rara features prominently during the Bwa Kay Iman event, and like the music, the ceremony is both political and religious, both sacred and secular. Bazile says that the ceremony in Brooklyn is a continuation of the tradition that started in 1791. “A long time ago they celebrate (Bwa Kay Iman) in Haiti. But then they stopped. And when Aristide came to power, he started to do it. That’s why I start to do it too.”
In 1991, two hundred years after the Haitian Revolution, and following many decades of extreme wealth disparity and the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Salesian priest and philosopher Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide was inaugurated President of Haiti after the country’s first-ever “free and fair” election. According to Wesleyan University Professor of Religion Elizabeth McAlister, Aristide advocated for the Haitian poor, specifically for land reform, human rights and literacy. Unfortunately, a military coup and more hardship were soon to follow. 
Bazile says that Brooklyn’s Bwa Kay Iman, “is to remind us of these events that passed. It all happened for a cause. Kay Iman means 'the house of Iman,' and Iman is the name of a heavy woman spirit. She is powerful, she knows how to fight. She is the one who give General Dessalines the good idea how to fight.” Dr. Wilcken notes that Dessalines was a leading general in the Revolution who became Haiti's first president.  “It's said that he was a Vodou practitioner, and he's mentioned in many Vodou songs, where he always represents power and resistance.”
Most of Vodou practice centers on serving spirits, who fall into several classes. According to Wilcken, the two major branches of the Vodou pantheon are Rada and Petwo. Rada comes down from the Guinea Gulf region, present-day Ghana, Benin, Togo, and to some degree Nigeria. The Petwo side is from the Congo region. The Congo peoples were coming into Haiti just before the Revolution in 1791; the Guinea Gulf peoples were arriving earlier. In Vodou, the Rada lwa are seen as balanced, cool, while the Petwo are temperamental, hot.
Iman is a decidedly Petwo spirit, but the Bwa Kay Iman ceremony features supplies to prepare for all of the spirits. “There are two altars. One is Petwo, one is Rada,” says Bazile. "Rada is the spirit of the soft. Petro is the heavy spirit. And we clean ourselves, not with water, but spiritually, before we do everything. We’ll have all the objects. The higher put everything on earth to serve. That’s why we have leaves, candles, fruit, food, everything to call the spirit. Make the spirit not visible, but you can feel it.”
Many members of the Gran Bwa community identify the Bwa Kay Iman ceremony with spirituality, love, discipline and the continued struggle for universal Haitian freedom - both on the island and in diaspora. Wilcken notes, “it’s the struggle be the person who you are, and to develop your talents and abilities, and not to be pushed into some dead end job, or poverty. And that’s what the slaves were dealing with in Saint-Domingue. That’s what Haiti was before it became Haiti - they were in a particularly acute condition. But that struggle really it’s still not completely won. If you’re not completely watching, the powers could push to roll it back. And losing this spot at Gran Bwa would be part of that.”
McAlister writes that the Haitian community has had a significant presence in New York since the 1950s, and organized Rara has taken place since 1990. The Prospect Park authorities have historically given the Gran Bwa community the freedom to organize regular activities and gatherings, as well as the annual Bwa Kay Iman ceremony. But the community is increasingly concerned that Lakou Gran Bwa (lakou is a Kreyòl word for “courtyard”) may be in danger of being subsumed, or subdued, by Lakeside -- a recreational redevelopment project adjacent to Gran Bwa that is meant to redefine the southeast corner of the Park. There has long been a large Haitian presence in Flatbush, East Flatbush, Crown Heights and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, the but many Gran Bwa community members see unsettling signs of gentrification in the neighborhood surrounding the Park’s southeastern entrance. For the time being, however, the Park’s Special Events Office continues to provide Gran Bwa with a permit to gather on every Sunday of the summer season, and it has approved Bwa Kay Iman 2013. And the Gran Bwa community is looking forward to continuing to grow its circle of family, friends and supporters. In the belief that seeing is understanding, Bazile hopes that future Bwa Kay Iman ceremonies will be ever more inclusive and well-attended. He insists, “the ceremony is not just for a group of people, for Haitian people. It’s for all people. For love, freedom, and discipline. It’s for everyone to see and understand.”
Interview with Makini Armand, Deenps Bazile, Erzuli Guillaume and Lois Wilcken. Molly Garfinkel for Place Matters, August 4, 2013.
McAlister, Elizabeth. Rara!: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.