Blan yo ap danse? (The blans are dancing?) Yikes…



Let’s come back to the drums (tanbou) for a moment. Something you’re sure to notice in Haiti is that rhythm resonates in every movement, creates a certain musical measure for conversation, and permeates much of Haitian existence; consequently, music appreciation doesn’t need to be taught (at least not formally).

I have a friend who is a well-recognized music teacher here in the United States. He is enormously talented musically and his passion invigorates his teaching.  Music (and the arts) should be promoted in our educational system; he’s a huge proponent of that.

He arrived in Haiti for a short-term visit in 2011, and you can only imagine his excitement during that first experience.  People moved here, naturally, effortlessly in beat with the background.  The richness of the church choir, the groups of kids singing as they walked down the street, and adults dancing as they moved along; this in accompaniment with the music broadcast from private radios loud enough for neighbors and passersby to hear at all hours, it was almost too much for him to handle; he was ecstatic.

As he toured the schools he realized that there were no music appreciation classes.  He reached out to the teachers about creating a partnership to fund a music program at their elementary school.  Surely a community that valued music so much would be excited about his proposal.

“Elèv nou yo pa bezwen aprann mizik! Se konprann.”

[Our students don’t need to learn music!  It’s understood.]

The teachers were a bit baffled by his suggestion, but patiently tried to explain all of this to the exuberant foreigner – how could he have missed something so obvious?

If you’ve travelled you probably know that we “blans” don’t have a particularly flattering reputation for our intrinsic sense of rhythm (Here I should mention I’m thinking mostly of those of us from North America, but if you are a blan from a more musical background we commend you and your skills!)  That may be because our culture tends to be more conservative when it comes to giving music a place in our everyday lives.  When was the last time you heard one of your coworkers or classmates start singing out of nowhere?  The last time you saw someone dancing in an “undesignated” location (i.e. outside of a studio, recital, bar, or club)?

Service is only helpful when we shift our perspective.  Funding the arts for schools here in the United States is a hot topic right now and it responds to OUR cultural need to preserve music in our society, to encourage it at an early age.  Haiti doesn’t need that; music is already ingrained in their everyday existence.

Si w’ ka mache, ou ka danse.  Si w’ ka pale, ou ka chante.

If you can walk, you can dance.  If you can speak, you can sing.

Defining need is an important part of service, and this is a great chance to acknowledge that need exists here and there, in both places, in both cultures, but differently.  So what do your partners in Haiti need?  

That’s a question you’re going to have to ask them.

“Nou marye tanbou nou” You marry your what?

For anyone who has ever endeavored to learn a second language, you know the sense of victory that comes with your first complete sentence.  “Bonjou!  Kouman ou ye?” The world opens up, and anyone might be your first (and maybe unsuspecting) target; you’re ready to practice some Creole!

Fast forward a few minutes, days, or maybe even months or years, and a very different experience surfaces, a moment that plunges you all the way back to the beginning:

“Bonjou! Kouman ou ye?”
“Mwen byen!! Ou pale kreyol?”
“Wi, wi! M’ap aprann!”

… A few simple exchanges follow, things you’re well prepared to handle, and then suddenly, Repeat?  Repeat again please?  Your friend waits for any sign of comprehension…nothing comes. Baffled, you just nod your head and smile.

Unbridled excitement and lofty visions of seamless interaction with native speakers give way to a new revelation: the distance between your Creole and native level fluency is laughable (in a way that sort’ve makes you want to cry).  There is so much more to learn!

But take courage zanmi m! This revelation shouldn’t discourage your efforts, only inform and fortify your resolve; you are on the brink of a more meaningful and profound level of interaction with your Haitian friends, colleagues and partners than was ever possible before.

One of the primary gaps in language learning is failure to distinguish between grammatical fluency and real cultural literacy. It’s one thing to speak the language, and it’s another to truly understand it; that comes with time, experience, and the willingness to dive deeper into the culture. While this applies universally, it is immediately relevant to language and communication in Haiti.

Let’s go back to the title phrase: “Nou marye tanbou nou.”


New learners can translate, it requires just a bit of vocabulary and familiarization with some basic grammar.  “Nou marye tanbou nou” = ” We marry our drums”.

Check it again . . .

Yup that definitely translates to “We marry our drums”.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute…

For a language like Haitian Creole that is rich in imagery and metaphor, translation often isn’t enough to convey meaning, and that can leave learners feeling a bit bewildered.

Learning Haitian Creole is about much more than the steps it takes to create a perfect sentence (Please note, we’re not devaluing those steps, HaitiHub provides access to those foundational building blocks through our language modules because they’re super important for getting started and they DO make a difference!) Like so many things, mastering Haitian Creole comes with layers of experience and an acute awareness of context. For many learners the most challenging aspect of Haitian Creole is also one of its most beautiful characteristics.  To truly understand what our Haitian friends are telling us means embracing Creole’s unique turn of phrase and the poetic spirit of its people.

So, back to it, “Nou marye tanbou nou” more closely represents the idea that, “We harmonize our drums to make music”.  Let’s dance! Ann danse! Wi?

That ultimately depends on context.  While a musical get together might be underway (in which case you’re in for a real treat) you might be jumping the gun, so don’t break out tanbou w’ yo just yet! For this particular phrase, there’s a meaningful metaphorical extension that gets at the very heart of what I’m trying to say.  “Nou marye tanbou nou” can mean: “We gather” or “We join forces”.

That’s what learning Haitian Creole is all about: coming together, joining forces, and using language to promote meaningful change in the relationships we build in Haiti. This can’t stop at just vocabulary and grammar; because language was created to share experience, words gather new layers of meaning over time. Meaningful communication has to take into consideration history, culture and so much more!

The HaitiHub Blog is resurfacing as a forum for discussion on language, service and cross-cultural communication.  For readers familiar with our language-learning site, you might have noticed the addition of the Serve Smart sessions to supplement the language module learning.  These Serve Smart sessions are an introduction to how the approach to service is evolving throughout the world. We want to make sure we’re at the forefront of that movement, along with our learners.

Your investment in Haiti makes you an important part of the conversation. Please feel free to post below or send us an e-mail at to share your thoughts.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you, byenvini nan blog HaitiHub!

- zanmi w’ yo nan HaitiHub