My Conversation with a Haitian Vodou Priestesss

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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