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Community , Arts & Culture , Live Music & Theater

Renowned Haitian Musician, Painter Finds Inspiration Abounds in Quiet Susquehanna County

Meet Gaston “Bonga” Jean-Baptiste – Master Haitian Drummer, Multi-Instrumentalist and Painter

The featured percussionist and long-time collaborator is set to release his first completely solo album in October.

If there’s one thing the tiny Northeastern PA town of Springville is famous for, it’s the quiet. Here, on a clear summer day, with little noise from the intersecting Route 29, an orchestra of everyday sounds keeps time with a hypnotic tranquility. Bees and dragonflies flitter about fence posts. Warm breezes roll along the green hilltops, turning leaves, swaying branches. Birds rustle in the roadside thickets.

In this unique type of quiet, in this small Endless Mountains village, a single moment of stillness reveals the grand musical movement of all things. And, if you stick around long enough, you’ll start to hear, somewhere in the distance, the thumping, beating heart of Haiti. That would be Bonga with his traditional, handmade Tanbou.

“I’m inspired by the forests and the trees and the nature here.” — Bonga

Gaston Jean-Baptiste, or Bonga, as he’s known professionally around the world, keeps a creative space in the Springville Schoolhouse Art Studios. The building sits tucked away between a ball field and a cemetery on a small hill just a beat from the town’s main thoroughfare. During the Depression Era and well into the mid-50s, the unassuming, red brick schoolhouse welcomed local children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Painters, poets, musicians, sculptors and the like have since remade the space. They congregate, collaborate and create – and chase muses, perhaps, into the splendid country stillness.

Bonga’s studio occupies a small corner on the third floor. His paintings (almost too many to count) line the walls and stand stacked in the corners. Musical instruments take up nearly every inch of available floor space. Color explodes in every movement of the eye. A sprightly man, short and thin of stature, holds court in the center of it all. His unruly nest of dreadlocks swings freely as he excitedly bounds from one thought to the next. A graying tangle of beard betrays his otherwise youthful aura.

A drum as a passport to the world.

Bonga is a man of many talents and interests. At heart, however, he’s a musician and a performer. He made his way from a mountain village in Haiti to just about every corner of the globe playing his Tanbou on concert stages, in jazz clubs and in classrooms. He’s played in famous Haitian bands, Boukman Eksperyans and Foula. Bonga even opened for the Rolling Stones and Grace Jones among other notable performers. He often jokes that his simple drum has carried him around the world. And throughout his journey, beyond the touring and the stage lights, Bonga made it his mission to keep the music, the traditions and the culture of his people alive.

Outside of his expertise as a traditional Haitian Drummer, Bonga also builds traditional Haitian Drums.  In fact, he is one of only a few such drum builders left in the world. The drum, or Tanbou, holds so much more significance within his culture. In Haiti, Master Drummers play the Tanbou during spiritual Vodou ceremonies. Their rhythm resembles the beating heart of Haiti and helps to connect its people with spirits that govern elements of everyday life from food to water to the Earth and beyond. For Bonga, the Tanbou represents life. “Without the drum,” he says, “our culture would be lost.”

The universal heartbeat of Haiti.

We caught up with Bonga in his studio as he prepared for the release of his first solo album. He’s been featured as a collaborator on many records to date, but this one, he calls, “truly solo.” He plays every instrument, sings every note and arranged every song on the album himself. And he couldn’t be prouder of his work. “This album is about love. It’s about spirituality,” he continues. “It’s about universal connection. It’s about feeling good. And (he grins) you’ll want to dance!”

During our visit, he dazzled us with not only a performance on one of his hand-carved drums, but he also played the conch, a konet, or as Bonga jokingly called it – “the ice cream cone.” He sang and accompanied himself on the harmonica and jangled the goat toe rattle tied to his foot. In short, music vibrated from his soul. And in turn, it found its way into ours. Soon, we found our toes tapping, our hands patting our sides and our heads bobbing rhythmically. And, before long, Bonga’s son, Balendjo and his daughter Jaquie had joined us with their own drums.

Bonga Boula

Much of our visit with Bonga focused on his story and his journey to NEPA. We’re saving most of that for our upcoming video (along with some of his studio performance). So, stay tuned to DiscoverNEPA.

In the meantime, get to know more about Bonga by visiting his website and checking him out on YouTube. And make sure you’re keeping an eye out for Bonga Boula, his upcoming album releasing in October 2021.

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