I first reviewed this article posted by Saumya Arya Hass several weeks ago.  It and others to be posted here offer informative insights, redactions, and experiences linked to Vodou.  In order to better “understand” this important, yet misunderstood spiritual system, the inclusion of varied viewpoints connected to my project on sacred world music are critical:

Huffington Post Online
02/25/2011 09:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
What is Voodoo? Understanding a Misunderstood Religion


By Saumya Arya Haas – ALB candidate in Religious Studies at Harvard University. She lives with challenges due to a Traumatic Brain Injury. Prior to this life-altering injury, she engaged in Interfaith/Intergroup Dialogue and Social Justice work as Director of Headwaters/Delta Interfaith, advising organizations including The New Orleans Healing Center and Hindu American Seva Charities; this work has taken her everywhere from West Africa to the White House. She writes for diverse publications online and in print media. Saumya is a priestess of both Hinduism and Vodou.

(S.A.H.) Before I answer any questions, I have some for you: What do you know about Voodoo?  Where did you get that impression?

Voodoo probably isn’t what you think it is. It might be easier to start with what Voodoo isn’t: Voodoo isn’t accurately portrayed in most movies, TV shows and books. Even some documentaries and non-fiction books are misleading. Voodoo isn’t a cult, black magic or devil worship. People who practice Voodoo are not witchdoctors, sorcerers or occultists. Voodoo isn’t a practice intended to hurt or control others. Most Voodooists have never seen a “Voodoo doll” (unless, like you, they saw it in a movie).

Voodoo isn’t morbid or violent. Voodoo isn’t the same everywhere. Not everyone who practices Voodoo does it in exactly the same way or agrees on exactly the same things. (This document only represents my understanding of Voodoo. I can’t speak for everyone!)

So, what is Voodoo?

Voodoo is a religion that originates in Africa. In the Americas and the Caribbean, it is thought to be a combination of various African, Catholic and Native American traditions. It is practiced around the world but there is no accurate count of how many people are Voodooists.

Voodoo has no scripture or world authority. It is community-centered and supports individual experience, empowerment and responsibility.

Voodoo is different in different parts of the world, and varies from community to community. This is mostly about Voodoo in New Orleans and Haiti.  Voodoo embraces and encompasses the entirety of human experience. It is practiced by people who are imperfect and may use religion for their own purposes.

What do Voodooists believe?

To understand what they believe, you have to first understand how a Voodooist sees the world. Those who practice Voodoo believe that there is a visible and an invisible world, and that these worlds are intertwined. Death is a transition to the invisible world, so our predecessors are still with us in spirit. They watch over and inspire us.

In addition to our ancestors and loved ones we knew in life, there are the Lwa, which can also be understood as archetypes of human personalities (such as Ogunthe warrior) and others that embody more specific concerns or localities (such as Marie Laveau in New Orleans). Each Lwa is actually a family of similar types (i.e. there is more than one Ogun; more than one way to be a warrior). Voodooists develop relationships with the Lwa to seek their counsel and help with concerns in the visible world. In some ways this is not dissimilar to the secular practice of studying and honoring remarkable historic figures. For example, someone who wishes to effect social change might find inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi and feel a kinship with them. They may read their books, keep a poster of them on the wall, place significance on their day of birth or death and try to live by their example. In a similar fashion, a Voodooist develops a relationship with particular Lwa, seeks to understand and embody the principles they represent, connects spiritually in order to affect personal transformation and manifest this energy in the visible world to help the living.

Like Catholic saints or Hindu deity figures, the Lwa are familiar and accessible whereas the “great good God,” although loving, is distant, and somewhat above individual human concerns.

Voodoo has ordained clergy, Hougan (priests) and Manbo (priestesses) that make a commitment to a spiritual path and can offer guidance when needed, but it is believed that each person is responsible for their own actions and capable of self-actualization. Voodooists especially places value on the strength of community for support and enrichment.

Just as there are differences within other faiths, there is great variation within Voodoo beliefs and practices. In places and times where conditions are very desperate, Voodoo is often focused on survival. In my New Orleans community, many Voodooists feel that part of religion is service to their community, so there is an emphasis on healing and social activism. We also have many artists and musicians in our community, further reflecting New Orleans’ unique cultural spirit.

If Voodoo is just another religion, why does everyone think it’s scary?

Racism clouds our view of Voodoo. It is rooted in slavery and intricately connected to this hemisphere’s political and social evolution. Voodoo was first practiced in America and the Caribbean by slaves of African descent, whose culture was both feared and ridiculed. Slaves were not considered fully human. Their religion was dismissed as superstition, their priests were denigrated as witchdoctors, their Gods and Spirits were denounced as evil.

One of the only successful slave revolutions in modern history occurred in Haiti in the late 1700s. Slaves of African descent overthrew European rulers and took control of the country. Many slaves were Voodooists, and some of their military leaders were priests who inspired and organized their communities to fight for freedom. The Haitian Revolution provoked fear in other European and American colonies that were reliant on vast numbers of slaves as plantation labor. The imagery and vocabulary of Voodoo (and other Afro-Caribbean religions) became threatening and ingrained in those cultures as something horrifying, associated with bloodshed and violence. It was brutally repressed in most places. It became taboo.

Over time, American culture became fascinated by this mysterious tradition and began to depict it in movies and books as sensationalized horror. “Voodoo” practices were dreamed up by Hollywood; most of the disturbing images fixed in our minds are something we saw in a movie. Hollywood created a mythology that we have taken as truth. “Voodoo” has become part of modern folklore as something evil that can hurt us.

But Voodoo is widely practiced in Haiti, and it is still relevant in politics there. Politics and religion make a controversial mix. In that regard, Voodoo is the same as any belief system. In the U.S., many Voodooists are afraid of how they will be treated so they hide their religion. While this is understandable, it also reinforces suspicion that they practice in secret to conceal something bad or violent. Fear begets fear.

We aren’t always aware of the origins of our beliefs; now and then we need to reassess what we know and how we know it. There were times in our nation’s history that other groups (e.g. Jews, Catholics) were similarly reviled. It’s only through education and getting to know those with different beliefs that we can overcome our fear and realize that they are ordinary people who enrich our communities.

Citation – This article first appeared on the Huffington Post cite: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/saumya-arya-haas/what-is-vodou_b_827947.html

My hope is to interview the author in the coming weeks to learn more about her insights and experiences as a Vodou Priestess.  In particular, I’ll be looking for learning moments regarding her take on the the Africa – Caribbean – New Orleans – Brazil links – Haitian Vodou is certainly influenced by African spiritual practices, though I’m curious to find out if it’s scholarly to state that voodoo “originates” in Africa.  Even with similarities, should it be called more appropriately, “Vodun”?  I’ll share what I discover.  –Jonathan

Next Reviews


Updated April 19, 2016

After reading an article on Haitian Vodou several months ago, I realized that my research on sacred world music could not ignore or fail to explore the existence of Voodoo in North American culture.  In short, Vodou has historically served as an Afrocentric religious or spiritual system practiced and celebrated throughout the Caribbean.

Haiti’s expression of Vodou has a strong, though marginalized following in Southern U.S. cities like New Orleans. And, like Cuba’s Santeria and Brazil’s Candomble, Haitian Vodou was developed and refitted using traditional Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs brought from West Africa by enslaved captives.  Elements of  Vodou are blended with Roman Catholicism. Several well-written articles (worth reading) on Voodoo as a syncretic religion have been published by the Huffington Post.

What I read in passing back in January, led to a recent excursion to New Orleans on April 4, 2016 where Haitian Vodou still retains strong ties not only to the Crescent City’s cultural and religious traditions, but its musical landscape as well. My inspiration for the journey was equally tied to a good deal of curiosity about the specific role of music in Vodou ceremonies.  In the end I would come away with much more than a cursory understanding of how music is used.

New Orleans has a number of “Voodoo” shops in and outside of the famous French Quarter. Many of them from my end, target tourists with a curious nose for trinkets and souvenirs like t-shirts inscribed with voodooisms.  In fact, businesses, concert halls, and even bars (which are everywhere), liberate and use the term voodoo quite liberally.  I’m not sure these fairly represent or edify the tradition.  Nonetheless, they exist and appear to thrive on the allure of voodoo!

Looking for a lead on a potential source, I reluctantly entered a shop in the French Quarter called “Voodoo Authentica” and asked to speak with a voodoo priest. Once the owner realized the breath of my interest in voodoo, she briskly, gave me the address of and directed me to the Vodou Priestess, Mambo Marie.  So, I trekked a few miles to Marie’s store, Carmel and Sons Botanica on Dumaine Street.  As I approached, the façade reminded me of corner grocery stores similar to the ones I grew up around in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The store by the way is located in the Faubourg Treme subdivision – hailed to be America’s oldest existing African American neighborhood where “free” slaves existed among those enslaved.

I gingerly opened the glass door, entered and noticed floor-to-ceiling shelves well stocked with oils, soaps, household goods, herbs and Vodou statues, paintings, books and artifacts – all for sale.  Before I could gently close the door, a woman seated behind a four foot wall greeted me.  “May I help you” she asked.  I said, “well, yes.  I’ve traveled from Wisconsin to interview you about Vodou”.

After a brief introduction, the presentation of my credentials, the setup of recording equipment and the intermittent entrance and exist both visitors, family and cash paying customers, we sat down and began what turned out to be an intriguing, informative and personally transformative conversation – much of it filled with laughter, learning moments for me and the kind of spontaneous exchanges generally reserved for two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long, long while. Perhaps this was fueled by her immediate claim with photos in hand, that I strongly resembled her father in appearance.  She was tickled when I joked that perhaps we were siblings who had finally been united.

With cameras rolling, I asked her to give me an overview of Vodou. The response by Priestess Mambo Marie was stunning and not surprisingly critical of the widespread misconceptions and faulty thinking by those including Hollywood movie makers who continue in her view to showcase deceptive ideas about her beloved religion.

Her first insights centered on confirming that Haitian Vodou “does not, repeat does not” include the drinking of animal blood, the use of dolls and pins or Satanic worship.  It does include animal sacrifice the the spirits with either a chicken, goat or pig”.  She paused to see if I had comprehended the magnitude of her proclamation.  As I nodded in affirmation, I couldn’t help but recall biblical narratives where the sacrifice of animals were used to pay  tribute to the God of the Hebrew children.

She invited me to her May 21, 2016 open ceremony in New Orleans where I would be able to witness and participate in if I chose to do so, in the 12 noon to 2:00 am event – with meals and rest in between.  Such an occasion is rare as most ceremonies are conducted in private homes.

We talked at length about the similarities between the sacred traditions of Cuba’s Santeria, Brazil’s Candomble and the existence of Haitian Vodou in New Orleans.  Priestess Marie shared her keen knowledge of each.  I chucked when she said all three are most than just “distant cousins” – they are in fact so similar she stated, that they are a part of the same intimate spiritual family where many of the spirits are the same (though spellings of their names vary).

Eventually, I was able to navigate the discussion to the role of music used in the ceremonies.  I asked about instruments and learned that there are essentially three: various types of drums including the Haitian (tanbou) drum which requires a “blessing” before being used in a ceremony, the maraca-like cha cha and a ghord  or shekere looking instrument commonly employed in West African music consisting of a dried gourd with beads covering the gourd – the one used in Haitian Vodou (at least the one Priestess Marie displayed), had a bell attached.  Mambo Marie demonstrates the use of the instruments:

Vodou rites are egaged to call upon spirits known as Loas for their aid, instruction, special powers and strengths. Loas are ancestral spirits who have become abstracted through the generations to become embodiments of certain principles or characteristics. A great feast is often prepared to entice the Loas to attend. Practitioners or Vodouists of the religion wear white clothing and are assisted by Ougan and Manbo (male and female Vodou priests, respectively) to become “possessed” by the Loas. Through singing, dancing, and particularly the music of the drums, spirits come to “ride” their mortal hosts and impart wisdom and direction upon the servants of the faith.

Loas are divided into several nations or families of spirits from the same ethnic group and serve a similar function. The most prominent nanchons are Rada, Nago, Djouba, Petwo, Kongo, Ibo, and Gède.  Each has their own assigned drums that are unique to a specific nanchon in order to call upon its loas.

Rada – The loas of this nanchon are strong, but benevolent, balanced in their treatment of their servants. These are the most revered spirits, and many Vodou rituals begin with adulations for them. They originate from the Fon people of Dahomey (present day Benin). In Fact, the word Vodou comes from the Fon word for “God”. There are many loas in this group. They include: Papa Legba – Guardian of the Crossroads; Marassa – twin spirits who represent childhood; Dambala – the serpent spirit who represents energy and life; Ezili Freda – spirit of love and femininity; Lasirèn – mistress of the sea and music. Rhythm and dance styles played for the Rada nanchon include: Yanvalou, Parigol, Zepol, Mahi, Fla Voudou and Daomé.

It should be noted that Rara Vodou music, a Lenten processional music performed between Ash Wednesday up until Easter Sunday.  This link underscores the relationship between Vodou and Catholicism.

Nago – The rhythm and dance style associated with these rites is also called Nago.

Djouba – The rhythms and dance styles associated with this nanchon are Djouba and Abitan.

Petwo – The rhythm and dance styles associate with Petwo include Petwo, Makiya, Bumba, Makanda, and Kita.

Kongo – The rhythm and dance style associated with this nanchon goes by the same name.

Ibo – The rhythm and dance style associated with this nanchon also goes by the same name.

Gède – The Vodou ceremony almost always ends with the rites for Gède nanchon. The rhythm and dance style associated with this nanchon is called Banda.

more about the interview coming soon…