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Lesson 2: Learning “Panama Mwen Tombe”

Aim: How do steady beat and rhythm work together in Haitian folk music?
Summary: Students will learn to sing “Panama Mwen Tombe,” discuss rhythm and beat, and learn about the tanbou drum.
Materials: Musical Explorers digital resources, Musical Explorers Student Guide
Standards: National 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 10, 11; NYC 1, 2, 3, 4
Vocabulary: tanbou

“Panama Mwen Tombe” is a popular folk song in Haiti with lyrics that seem simple and childlike. But the song is actually believed to refer to the unexpected death of former Haitian President Florvil Hyppolite in 1896. Legend has it that while he was on his way to Jacmel to secure the city from attack, his hat fell off, which is a bad omen in Haiti. Ignoring this, he mounted his horse and continued on his way, but before he got there, he had a heart attack, fell of his horse, and died. The song has been reinterpreted many times, reflecting Haiti’s evolving political situation and offering a warning to politicians about the desire for too much power.

Emeline Teaches “Panama Mwen Tombe”

“Panama Mwen Tombe” Demonstration

Haitian artist Emeline teaches “Panama Mwen Tombe.”

Sing “Panama Mwen Tombe”

  • Listen to the audio track “Panama Mwen Tombe.”
  • Learn the lyrics to the chorus using the audio track “Panama Mwen Tombe” pronunciation.
  • Sing the chorus using the audio track “Panama Mwen Tombe” chorus.

“Panama Mwen Tombe”


Mwen soti lavil Jakmèl
M a prale Lavale
An arivan Kafou Benè,
Panama mwen tombe

Panama mwen tombe
Panama mwen tombe
Panama mwen tombe
Sa ki dèyè ranmase li pou mwen



I left the city of Jacmel
I went to La Vallée
When I got to the intersection at Bainet,
My hat fell off.

My hat fell off
My hat fell off
My hat fell off
Whoever is behind me, please pick it up for me

Explore Steady and Rhythm in “Panama Mwen Tombe”

  • Listen to the audio track “Panama Mwen Tombe” chorus, while having the class tap the steady beat on their laps.
  • Using the audio track kongo rhythm, learn the kongo rhythm, which is the underlying rhythm of the song
  • While the class keeps the steady beat, clap the kongo rhythm.
    • What did you notice?
    • What is the difference between the steady beat and the rhythm?
  • Listen to “Panama Mwen Tombe” chorus, Track 27, again, clapping the kongo rhythm together.
  • Split the class into two groups. As you listen to the full song, Track 25, have half the class tap the steady beat while the other half claps the kongo rhythm. Ask the groups to switch parts after each verse.
Creative Extension

Explore the Tanbou Drum

  • The tanbou drum is the national instrument of Haiti. The body of the drum is made from wood. The head of the drum is made from an animal skin, usually from a cow or goat. The tanbou drum is played with your hands. A variety of sounds can be produced depending on what part of the hand is used, and what part of the drumhead is played.
  • Explain that the tanbou drum plays the traditional compas rhythms that propel the compas dance.
  • Use Explore the Tanbou Drum (PDF).
Creative Extension

Explore Superstitions

In “Panama Mwen Tombe,” the president’s hat falls to the ground. In Haiti, that is considered a bad omen. Discuss some other things that some people believe bring bad luck.

  • Breaking a mirror
  • Opening an umbrella indoors
  • Walking under a ladder
    • Why do you think these things are thought to bring bad luck?
    • Do you believe they truly bring bad luck? Why or why not?

Invite your students to bring this topic home to discuss with their families and learn about any beliefs specific to their cultures. Ask them to share what they learned with the class. Notice how different cultures have different beliefs, and why they may differ.

Literacy Extension

Little Fanfan Sings and Dances in Haiti

In Little Fanfan Sings and Dances in Haiti by Susan Gleason Pierre-Louis, Little Fanfan describes Haiti for the reader, from what the island looks like to how its people celebrate Haiti’s birthday on January 1!

Book cover for "Little Fanfan sings and dances in Haiti" depicting a little boy dancing among flowers

Musical Word Wall

Add the word tanbou to the Musical Word Wall.

Image Credits

“View of Haitian Landscape” by Michelle Walz Eriksson is licensed by CC BY 2.0.

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