The germ of an idea for our show on Vodou varies greatly from how our program on play originated. We receive thousands of e-mails from listeners who want to hear more on a topic they’re curious about. Many of these gentle recommendations we add to our supersecret *wink* “big list” of potential programs. Vodou was one of them.

About two years ago, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith wrote us a brief e-mail asking if we had produced shows on “African and African-derived traditional religions” and recommended several volumes that he’d edited on Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble, and Umbanda.

Our former associate producer Jessica Nordell called him asking for suggestions for people that he thought could speak about Vodou intimately. He was forthcoming and recommended many voices, including Claudine Michel. But we quickly realized that he was that voice — a Haitian aristocrat who was not only a scholar of the tradition but a practitioner who discovered Vodou in his early adulthood. We found his personal story about rediscovering his heritage and the spirit of the people of his country utterly captivating.

Once Krista interviewed him, we knew it was a show. Production of some shows are liberating when all the pieces fall into place. “Living Vodou” was one of them.

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith sent us Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, which was a homerun for music elements. The compilation was appropriate, Mitch reminded me, because it piggybacked on his story about playing Haitian music on a radio station in Benin. It also captured the ears of our senior producer for its pure, percussive rhythms, whereas Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe’s beautiful melodies blended themes of rural life and Vodou. In the spirit of Vodou ceremonies, Mitch chose “Legba non baye-a” to usher in the program. Legba is the first lwa to be saluted at a ceremony and serves as a gatekeeper, a conduit to the spirit world.

Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Se ou ki pote drapo
Se ou k ap pare soley pou lwa-yo

Legba is at the gate
Legba is at the gate
Legba is at the gate
It is you who carreis the flag
It is you who shields the spirits from the sun

My challenge was to find a photograph that would capture the vibrant culture and complex system of beliefs that Bellegarde-Smith described — as it is lived in the United States today. A few hours later, I was left hopeless thinking that I may not get an image that would do our show justice. Maya Deren’s book and film set me on the right course.

I began searching Flickr and other sites for variant spellings of Haitian spirits and concepts — everything from Voodoo to Vodun, from Gede to Ghede, from lwa to loa, from veves to vévé. Then I discovered this image:

The photo captures so much: the poto mitan, a painting of a Catholic saint, a fashionably dressed priest shooting vaporized rum from his mouth, a small boy in a humid basement, a lady in white garb, a festive atmosphere, movement.

Here was a photographer who was personally invested in her subjects — at least my intuition said so — and not just documenting them. When I contacted Stephanie Keith for permission to use a few photographs, I asked her why she got started on this project — a Vodou priest at a Buddhist peace rally invited her to learn more about his religion at a “party.” That was enough for me. The result: “Vodou Brooklyn,” a narrated slide show of her images and story mixed in with songs from Angels in the Mirror.

Several months later, Current TV contacted us after watching the video wondering if we did film projects. Unfortunately, we can’t do much right now. And, the Brooklyn Historical Society invited Stephanie to submit our documentary for the Brooklyn Arts & Film Festival. It’s exciting to see our material find paths into different communities, and we can only hope it furthers our public radio mission to “enrich the spirit and nourish the soul.”

UPDATE 8.18.08: And, as unexpected bloggers talk about this show (e.g., The Wild Hunt), perhaps we’ll be part of a larger dialogue in niche communities we weren’t involved in before.

Share Your Reflection



The SOF episode on the topic of vodou was quite possibly one of the best and most important ever presented by the program. It was immensely informative and quite effective at dispelling many of the all-to-widely held beliefs about this too often misunderstood faith tradition. Bravo!

John, thanks for the feedback. I've got to admit that Maya Deren's "Divine Horsemen" really brought the tradition to life. There's something so practical and sound to certain rituals and ways of carrying forward the energy of spirits. Nothing goes to waste. The manner in which they reclaim the energy of a spirit once the body has died is quite poetic, and useful in acknowledging ancestors and the wisdom of that spirit.

Thanks for the nod, I have been a fan of this show for some time and appreciate the time you take to explore minority religions, indigenous traditions, and new religious movements.

Jason Pitzl-Waters
The Wild Hunt

You shouldn't be surprised that Jason picked this up for The Wild Hunt. It's exactly the kind of thing he tries to keep the Pagan community informed of. I'm a huge fan of your show, and glad to see the level of diversity of religious experience you continue to explore!

Thanks Peela. I'm not a regular reader of The Wild Hunt but have come across it on occasion. I'm appreciative for the shout-out.

I found this program most informative as I have most of the SOF content.

The social networking site Gather was advertised while I was listening. I have gone there and joined, but am disappointed with it thus far. Was hoping to find folks who might want to discuss the SOF programs but no luck so far. It could be just my lack of knowledge, but Gather seems poorly organized.

It appears that Krista has been to Gather in the past, but I see no recent activity by her.

Any SOF places on Gather?


elmo adams

Elmo, Krista posts her journal on Gather regularly with some discussion revolving each week's essay. There's also http://speakingoffaith.gather..... We'd love for you to strike up some discussion. We try but with production duties and our other forays we can't dedicate as much time as we'd like to moderating and encouraging dialogue on these forums. Also, we have groups on Facebook and Beliefnet if you're interested.

To Trent Gillis - please see my posting on your blog. Thanks, DB

I stumbled onto this photo slideshow of a Haitian Vodou Ceremony in Life Magazine this week, and thought back to this show.

Many of the pictures are very explicit, but I found both the images and my own reactions to them really "enlightening," if you will. I felt a mix of awe, disgust, beauty, despair... and questioned how my own culture has conditioned me to see and respond to others'. The description of the slideshow definitely resonated with me: 

"Few religions are as misunderstood and as steeped in often-cartoonish misapprehension as Haitian Vodou. Countless people around the globe, shown images of a ceremony, might confidently say, "Yes, that is Vodou." But very few, when pressed, could coherently discuss the core tenets of the belief."

Thank you for this program. Please do more shows on different "religious" traditions. Hinduism, Santeria . . . also the programs you've had with Muslim practioner didn't really explain Islam. I'd love to hear that. Thank you.