Program Particulars: Living Vodou

January 09, 2014

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to web version of audio

Album art

(01:00–01:32) Music Element

"Legba Nan Baye'A" from Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, performed by Rara La Bel Faicheur De L'anglade

(01:15) Definition of Vodou

The term "vo-du" is drawn from the language of the Fons in western Africa. Commonly spelled as "Voodoo" in English, other common terms prevail: Vodou, Vodun, Vodoun, Vaudou, Vaudoux. The prefix vo means "introspection" and the suffix du means "into the unknown." Consequently, the Vodou rituals form the sum total of this introspection; that is, they are studied accomplishments that proceed from psychological information.

The word lois translates as "laws" in French. The lois (laws of creation) create the Loas (animistic spirits) in visible manifestations such as plants, animals and men, but chiefly ancestors, because Vodou is essentially a cult of ancestor worship.

Album art

(02:02–03:43) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale

(02:05) Occupation of Haiti

Geostrategic and economic interests were at the root of the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915. Washington was interested in securing naval stations throughout the region and was concerned about Germany's economic power in Haiti, as well as their aggressive employment of military power:

"Reports reached Washington that Berlin was considering setting up a coaling station at the Môle Saint-Nicolas to serve the German naval fleet. This potential strategic encroachment resonated through the White House, at a time when the Monroe Doctrine (a policy that opposed European intervention in the Western Hemisphere) and the Roosevelt Corollary (whereby the United States assumed the responsibility for direct intervention in Latin American nations in order to check the influence of European powers) strongly shaped United States foreign policy, and when war on a previously unknown scale had broken out in Europe. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson accordingly began contingency planning for an occupation of Haiti."

(02:23) White Zombie and Vodou Dolls

In 1932, United Artists distributed the horror film White Zombie. The setting was based in Haiti and centered around the machinations of a Vodou chief played by Bela Lugosi. This production and later ones spread the fictitious notion that Vodou priests stick pins into dolls, an erroneous association that persists to this day.

The origin of the practice of sticking pins in a "vodou doll" as a way of placing a curse on an individual is uncertain. Some theorize that it was a way for slaves to instill fear in slave owners. These dolls are not a feature of Haitian Vodou. Some followers of what is known as New Orleans Vodou use dolls in this way. The practice has connections to European-based folk magic using objects called poppet and in places in western and central Africa, with nkisi or bocio.

(02:43) Vodou's Roots in Benin

Dahomey was an African kingdom that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries in present-day southern Benin. The Kingdom of Dahomey was an absolute monarchy that prospered, in part, by selling slaves to Europeans. A British naval blockade in 1852 forced Dahomey to accept a treaty abolishing the slave trade. The territory became a French colony in 1872 and achieved full independence from France in 1960. The name of the country was changed to the People's Republic of Benin in 1975. Benin is located on the Gulf of Guinea, between Togo on the west and Nigeria on the east. It is bounded by Burkina Faso and Niger on the north. The country is about the size of Tennessee.

Album art

(04:02–04:54) Music Element

"Nago Pa Piti" from Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, performed by Rara La Bel Faicheur De L'anglade

(06:50) Aborigine of Australia and Dreamtime

In his book About Time, Davies writes, "Running like a common thread through the history of human thought, East and West, North and South, is a belief that the entire paradigm of human temporality is rooted in some sort of monstrous illusion; it is but an elaborate product of the human mind… (T)rue reality is vested in a realm that transcends time: the Land Beyond Time. Europeans call it "eternity," Hindus refer to it as "moksha" and Buddhists as "nirvana."

In the On Being program "Einstein's God," Krista and astrobiologist Paul Davies dwell on the manifestation of this thinking among the indigenous people of Australia, where Davies has spent most of his life. Here is a passage from About Time, in which Davies describes this thinking in detail:

According to the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner: A central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long, long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither "time" nor "history" as we understand them is involved in this meaning. I have never been able to discover any aboriginal word for time as an abstract concept. And the sense of "history" is wholly alien here. We shall not understand The Dreaming fully except as a complex of meanings.

Although the Dream Time carries connotations of a heroic past age, it is wrong to think of that age as now over. "One cannot 'fix' The Dreaming in time," observes Stanner. "It was, and is, everywhen." Thus the Dreaming retains a relevance in contemporary aboriginal affairs, because it is part of the present reality; the "creator beings" are still active today. What Europeans call "the past" is, for many aboriginal people, both past and present. Stories of creation are often cast in what Europeans would call the recent past, even as recent as the era of white settlement. No incongruity is felt, because, for the Australian aborigine, events are more important than dates. This subtlety is lost on most European minds; we have become obsessed with rationalizing and measuring time in our everyday lives. Stanner quotes an old Australian black man who expressed this cultural gulf lyrically:

White man go no dreaming.  Him go 'nother way.  White man, him go different,  Him got road belong himself.

The concept of "white man's time" as a "road" down which he marches single-mindedly is an especially apt description, I think, of Western linear time. It is a road that may perhaps lead to progress, but the psychological price we pay for embarking upon it is a heavy one.

To hear some of these stories of Dreaming, the Australian Museum provides a list of audio files as told by Aboriginal elders. Also, Bruce Chatwin's book Songlines is a modern exploration of this evocative aboriginal understanding of the creation of the world and the meaning of time and history.

Album art

(09:28–10:52) Music Element

"Se Zekle Yanyan" from Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, performed by Societe Jour M'Foc Nan Point Dieu Devant

View an audio slideshow

Audio SlideshowStephanie Keith met a Vodou priest at a Buddhist interfaith event. He invited her to photograph and experience the religious world of his Haitian culture. Ten ceremonies later, she offers her images and reflections on these late-night rituals.

(11:20) Deep Trance, You Don't Remember

Bellegarde-Smith says that the best description he has ever read of a "possession" is in the last chapter, titled "The White Darkness," of Maya Deren's book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Here she describes how the goddess Ezili took possession of her during a ritual ceremony in Haiti:

"This is it! Resting upon that leg I feel a strange numbness enter it from the earth itself and mount, within the very marrow of the bone, as slowly and richly as sap might mount the trunk of a tree. I say numbness, but that is inaccurate. To be precise, I must say what, even to me, is pure recollection, but not otherwise conceivable: I must call it a white darkness, its whiteness a glory, and its darkness, terror."

Deren refers to the "warning aura of possesion" as a "thinning out of consciousness" and ends the chapter:

"The white darkness moves up the veins of my leg like a swift tide rising, rising; it is a great force which I cannot sustain or contain, which, surely, will burst my skin. It is too much, too bright, too white for me; this is its darkness. 'Mercy!' I scream within me. I hear it echoed by the voices, shrill and unearthly: 'Erzulie!' The bright darkness floods up through my body, reaches my head, engulfs me. I am sucked down and exploded upward at once. That is all."

Album art

(11:29–13:49) Music Element

"Papa Loko" from Toto Bissaithe Chante Haiti, performed by Toto Bissaithe

(13:35) Clip from Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen

Maya Deren, avant-garde filmmaker, first traveled to Haiti in 1947 for eight months. As the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for "creative work in the field of motion pictures," she intended to study Haitian dance, strictly as a dance form. After three trips to Haiti, she shot more than four years of still photographs, video footage, and audio recordings. She abandoned her original dance project, writing about it in her 1953 boo, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti: "[The book] is, to me, the most eloquent tribute to the irrefutable reality and impact of Voudoun mythology. I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity; I end by recording, as humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations."

Deren died in 1961 at the age of 44, having never completed editing the material. In 1985, her third husband Teiji Ito and his new wife Cherel assembled the footage adding an anthropological structure and narration to clarify the details of the ceremonies. The audio clip from the film documents the combination of Haitian Vodou rites and rituals with Catholic liturgy.

(17:11) Vodou Belief in One God

Haitian Vodouisants believe that there is one God who is the creator of all. Bondye (from the French Bon Dieu or "Good God") is a "pure spirit" so far removed from human life that one does not pray to it, but rather to a vast array of Vodou deities, or lwa.

Gerdes Fleurant, a houngan (Vodou priest) and scholar of musical culture, provides some insight on the nature of Bondye in his essay "Vodun, Music, and Society in Haiti: Affirmation and Identity":

"According to Vodun beliefs, Bondye … created the universe, the Lwa, human beings, and the animal, vegetal, and mineral worlds. After creating the world, Bondye retired far into the sky and left the management of all earthly matters to the Lwa, who have dominion over natural elements such as fire, water, wind, trees, and plants … in sum, all actions, sentiments and virtues."

—from Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth and Reality

(18:57) Reference to Pentecostal Churches

For more in-depth treatments of the growing global Pentecostal movement, listen to Krista's interviews with Margaret Poloma and Robert Franklin in "Pentecostalism in America" and the spirit of Azusa in "Spiritual Tidal Wave: The Origins and Impact of Pentecostalism."

Album art

(19:09–20:10) Music Element

"Let It Fall Down on Me" from a live recording, performed by the West Angeles Cathedral Church of God in Christ Choir

» View slideshow Brazilian fans perform capoeira in the streets of Munich during the 2006 World Cup. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian fans perform capoeira in the streets of Munich during the 2006 World Cup. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

(24:55) Brazilian Martial Art, Capoeira

Capoeira is a unique combination of subversive game, martial art, and dance. Although the specific origins of capoeira are debated, it was refined and practiced by enslaved Africans in Brazil. Disguised as a game, it allowed slaves to gather and publicy hone their fighting skills in the presence of their captors. In 1890, two years after slavery was abolished, the government outlawed capoeria for it's association with urban gangs and criminal activity. It went underground, but resurfaced in the 20th century as an accepted art form. Today, it is practiced across the globe and is an important part of Brazil's cultural heritage.

Album art

(26:37–28:49) Music Element

"M Pap Mache A Te Anye" from Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, performed by Rara La Fraicheur De L'anglade

Album art

(28:50–29:52) Music Element

"Mennwat Dance" from Angels in the Mirror, performed by Nremye Nimewo

(30:17) Reference to Karen McCarthy Brown
Karen McCarthy Brown wrote Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn.

Album art

(30:19–30:56) Music Element

"Guantanamo Rara Sont temp" from Rhythms of Rapture: Sacred Musics of Haitian Vodou, performed by Rara Inorab Kapab

(31:00) Gede

Karen McCarthy Brown describes the dynamic deity Gede in Mama Lola:

"Papa Gede, as Alourdes [Mama Lola] calls him, is a trickster spirit. Through his randy, playful, childish, and childlike personality Gede raises life energy and redefines the most painful situation — even death itself — as one worth a good laugh. Gede is a transformation artist, and this is the reason he is also the principal healer among the Vodou lwa.

Gede is the Vodou spirit who presides over the realms of sex, death, and humor. His possession-performances vary along a spectrum that tracks the path of a human life. He eats with his hands and sometimes throws his food like an infant. Like a two-year-old, he delights in saying naughty words. He is horny and predatory with women, like a young man with raging hormones. Like a favorite uncle, he hunkers down with the faithful and listens with genuine care to the most homely of their complains…

Gede has license to break all the social rules. … Haitians are, in general, a discreet and proper people. Lacking physical privacy, they strongly emphasize good manners. It is, for example, highly insulting to call a person malelve (badly reared); were Gede not a spirit, he would be a prime candidate for this insult. He can say all the things that are forbidden in polite company, act out the impulses others must suppress. … He alone can satirize the powerful and the privileged; only Gede could get away with making fun of Catholic priests. …

Gede takes people on a journey through their most out-of-control selves and, in so doing, prepares them to move back into the ordinary world where reserve and control must reign. Yet Gede's possession-performances should not be mistaken for mere entertainment.

Gede brings to the surface a connection between sexuality and life energy pervasive in Vodou spirituality. All Vodou rituals aim to echofe (heat things up). To raise heat, to raise luck, to raise life energy, to intensify sexuality in the broadest sense — these are all more or less the same process. The arrival of Gede at the end of a Vodou ceremony provides an extra, intense dose of the power needed to conquer life, to use it and enjoy it, rather than be conquered by it."

Album art

(33:22–34:13) Music Element

"Port-Au-Prince Drumming" from Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, performed by The Unknown Drummer

Haitian master drummer Ti Be speaks of the power of the drum as an instrument: "It is like a person: You baptize it, you feed it like a lwa. When you plan to make a drum, you have to perform a special ceremony, to make sure that the right spirits ge into it. You go to the wood with your assistants as if you were having a Vodun ritual under the peristyle. You light a candle and you draw a vévé [the vévé of Legba, the entity that opens the cosmic gates] at the foot of the tree you intend to fell. Then you offer food, liquor and water, and you pray. It is only after you have done all these things that you are allowed to cut down the tree to make the drum. After the drum is made, it must be baptized, the same way you baptize all other ritual objects."

Album art

(38:06–39:36) Music Element

"Lamiz Pa Dous" from Toto Bissainthe Chante Haiti, performed by Toto Bissainthe

(39:28) Concept of Konesans

One of the best descriptions we could find appears in Karen McCarthy Brown's book, Mama Lola:

"Priestly power is said to reside in konesans. This knowledge could be called psychic power, the gift of eyes, empathy, or intuition. It is any and all of these things. Above all, it is knowledge about people. Vodou provides a vast and complex symbol system for thinking about people. Konesans is the ability to read people, with or without cards; to diagnose and name their suffering, suffering that Haitians know comes not from God and usually not from chance but from others — the living, the dead, and the spirits. Finally konesans is the ability to heal."

Album art

(45:38–46:31) Music Element

"O Bazilo Ou Pa We Nou Nan Chenn" from Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, performed by Sanba Zawo, Djakata

Album art

(49:28–52:38) Music Element

"Se Zekle Yanyan" from Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, performed by Societe Jour M'Foc Nan Point Dieu Devant

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and author of many books about Vodou.