[excerpt]

In my forty years I, Zarité Sedella, have had better luck than other slaves. I am going to live a long time and my old age will be a time of contentment because my star—mi z’etoile—also shines when the night is cloudy. I know the pleasure of being with the man my heart has chosen. His large hands awaken my skin. I have had four children and a grandson, and those who are living are free. My first memory of happiness, when I was just a bony, runny-nosed, tangle-haired little girl, is moving to the sound of the drums, and that is also my most recent happiness, because last night I was in the Place Congo dancing and dancing, without a thought in my head, and today my body is warm and weary. Music is a wind that blows away the years, memories, and fear, that crouching animal I carry inside me. With the drums the everyday Zarité disappears, and I am again the little girl who danced when she barely knew how to walk. I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lighting bolt and rises toward the sky, carrying with it my sorrows so that Papa Bondye can chew them, swallow them, and leave me clean and happy. The drums conquer fear. The drums are the heritage of my mother, the strength of Guinea that is in my blood. No one can harm me when I am with the drums, I become as overpowering as Erzulie, loa of love, and swifter than the bullwhip. The shells on my wrists and ankles click in time, the gourds ask questions, the djmbe drums answer in the voice of the jungle and the timbales with their tin tones. The djun djuns that know how to speak make the invitation, and the big maman roars when they beat her to summon the loas. The drums are sacred, the loas speak through them.

In the house where I spent my earliest years the drums were silent in the room we shared with Honoré, the other slave, but they were often taken out. Madame Delphine, my mistress then, did not want to hear the blacks’ noise, only the melancholy laments of her clavichord. Mondays and Tuesdays she gave classes to girls of color, and the rest of the week she taught in the mansions of the grand blancs, where the mademoiselles had their own instruments because they could not use the ones the mulatta girls touched. I learned to clean the keys with lemon juice, but I could not make music because Madame forbade us to go near her clavichord. We didn’t need it. Honoré could draw music from a cookpot; anything in his hands had beat, melody, rhythm, and voice. He carried sounds inside his body; he had brought them from Dahomey. My toy was a hollowed gourd we made to rattle; later he taught me to caress his drums, slowly. And from the beginning, when he was still carrying me around in his arms, he took me to dances and voodoo services, where he marked the rhythm with his drum, the principal drum, for others to follow. This is how I remember it. Honoré seemed very old to me because his bones had frozen stiff, even though at the time he was no older than I am now. He drank taffia in order to endure the pain of moving, but more than that harsh rum, music was the best remedy. His moans turned to laughter with the sound of the drums. Honoré barely could peel sweet potatoes for the mistress’s meal, his hands were so deformed, but playing the drum he never got tired, and when it came to dancing no one lifted his knees higher, or swung his head with more force, or shook his behind with more pleasure. Before I knew how to walk, he had me dance sitting down, and when I could just balance myself on two legs he invited me to lose myself in the music, the way you do in a dream. “Dance, dance, Zarité, the slave who dances is free…while he is dancing,” he told me. I have always danced.