The Here and Hereafter!
The Here and Hereafter: A Haitian Vodou Experience
Published October 31, 2008
I remember once when I was about 10 years old, my family was lost in the mountains of North Georgia and we stopped at a church picnic to ask for directions. Once we got out of the car we realized that it was no ordinary picnic, but a real to life, venom spitting, tail shaking rattlesnake revival. We stayed and watched for a little while before getting out of there. I never got over the looks on the people's faces as they held those deadly snakes. Their faith was so strong that they willingly put their lives at risk believing that a higher power was in control of their destiny. It was something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was also the beginning of a chapter of my life that would not not be revisited for quite some time. October 31, 1998: the air was thick with the sounds and smells of ceremony. All ceremony is celebrated with reverence and sincerity in Haiti, but Guede is especially important. Paralleled by All Saints Day in Europe, Halloween in the United States, Samhain in Celtic cultures and Dia de los Muertes in the rest of the Caribbean, it is a time when families communicate with ancestors that have worn out their physical bodies and passed on to the other side of existence. In Haiti, after you die, your body is put in the ground, but if you lived well, you are forever remembered as loa (pronounced lo-wa), a status similar to sainthood in Catholicism. They say your spirit hovers over your body after you die and your essence can actually be captured by a priest (houngun) or priestess (mambo). If this happens then you spend your afterlife in a small clay jar, or govi, on an altar. You may be called upon from time to time to enter a room and offer advice to your family and community. This doesn't happen to everybody; some people are better off forgotten. People who achieved great stature in the living world are oftentimes made into legends in the afterlife.
Storing an essence in a jar may seem strange to a person unaccustomed to Vodou culture, but consider the practice of cremation. After the body is burned, the ashes are either scattered or stored in an urn. Often the urn sits upon a mantle or somewhere reverent, and every once in a while it is mentioned in passing. It is similar with Vodou, but instead of an urn there is a govi; inside are not ashes but your essence, and instead of being stored on a mantle you are placed on an altar and ceremoniously remembered throughout the year. The main conduit for communication with this essence is through drumming, dancing and singing. This is what drew me and my companions to the deep inner city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti for a Guede ceremony with Master Vodou drummer Frisner Augustin's family. Besides his partner, novelist and historian Lois Wilcken, we were the only non-Haitians who attended the ceremony, first as onlookers, and later as participants.
My friends and I had traveled to Port-au-Prince five days before, and through a series of calculated events arranged to attend the ceremony with Lois Wilcken. We were three
￼￼drummers, a dancer, a photographer and a professor. Already we had been to the famous Hotel Oloffson and performed Haitian drumming with RAM, one of the most famous bands in Haiti, and attended a concert by Boukman Experyans, Haiti's most revolutionary music group. We had attended a high-scale Haitian Studies conference, been to the American Embassy, and now we were to attend a Vodou ceremony.
Dancer Ellen, photographer Mark and drummers Manito, Nate and I shared a common quest for folkloric traditions. Having already studied and performed Haitian dance in Athens for the past few years, we were thrilled when told that the Vodou worshipers would allow us to watch as they communicated with their ancestors. The first thing we were told when we arrived was that there would be no taxi traveling back into the city after midnight, and if we did not leave by then then we would have to wait until daybreak. We were also told that there would be no photographs allowed. Mark was disappointed, but that disappointment was soon forgotten. We entered the room, all eyes on us as Gary, Frisner's son, explained to the group in Creole that we were drummers and a dancer from the United States, and were interested in Vodou. They were suspicious of us at first and we stayed in the very back of the room observing, seeing if we could recognize the music or dances.
There is nothing that compares to being at a Vodou ceremony. The air was stifling at times with heat and tobacco smoke wafting up from every crevice. People were drinking either Prestige, the national beer of Haiti, or clarion, dark rum mixed with 16 of the hottest peppers on the island. As the drums began pounding out haunting, beautiful melodies at maximum volume the people in the room began singing, dancing and clapping their hands. It was easy for me to see how this rolling, cyclic music with no beginning or end, much like a snake eating its own tail, was responsible for inducing states of ecstasy and trance. Everybody in the room was dressed in solid white from head to toe and I noticed that there were Haitians of all ages there. Some of the children looked like wise old grandparents in shrunken bodies. Their eyes showed glimpses of souls much older than their physical age. The purpose of the drumming, dancing, and singing was to entice the loa to enter the room and offer otherworldly advice about earthly matters. Loa are attracted to ceremonies by the playing of specific rhythms and songs, with the intermediary being either a mambo or houngun. In this case it was a mambo, and what a mambo! Marie-Michelle was at least 250 pounds of human flesh and 10 tons of spiritual knowledge! At times she would shake her gourd ason at the sky and scream out words in Creole, always followed by a ubiquitous "Ayibobo!" from the rest of the participants. The purpose of this particular ceremony was to honor and communicate with Guede, the patron loa of the dead. In Vodoun there is a hierarchy that must be maintained in order to communicate with loa. One cannot immediately draw up Guede or Ogun (loa of iron and warfare) or any other loa without first addressing Legba, the guardian of the crossroads between here and the hereafter. Once Legba is honored then you move on to the next loa, and the next, until you get to the one you want to communicate with. This process cannot be overlooked, and ceremonies can start at dusk and last until dawn.
That night we witnessed the drawing forth of many loa who entered the room by mounting (possessing) unknowing participants. When Ogun entered the room there were
￼blistering rhythms played on the drums and screams from the participants. At one point a man in his mid-30s was spinning around frantically, eyes rolled back, with machete drawn, swinging it blindly. He began slapping the machete on the ground with the broad side of the blade and then hitting his forehead, back and forth, back and forth, while the blade sang loud and clear: Ching! Ching! Ching! It was at this point that I was utterly convinced that no person in his own mind would willingly do this to himself. This person was possessed by Ogun himself. Then the drums abruptly stopped, all singing ceased, and the room took on this "eye of the hurricane" feeling. Calm swept over the room and the man who was possessed by Ogun began addressing the crowd in a nasal voice that was otherworldly. I was not totally aware of what transpired as he spoke to the mambo in Creole, but I began to feel safe again. At this point, the participants had opened up to us a little more, and when the drums kicked back in, this time with the lively song "Banda," they began dancing with us. They shared their beer with us and even started posing for photos as the mood in the room lightened up.
It was approaching four o'clock in the morning by the time the final guest of honor arrived. The mood was different for each loa. Guede is known for bawdy, raucous behavior, and is oftentimes known for exposing himself for shock value. As people one by one began showing the first signs of possession by Guede, they poured flour on their faces, giving them a strange "white face" that contrasted strongly with their dark skin. The reason for this is that Guede is said to be a mulatto. They also donned top hats and sunglasses, cigarette holders and canes. As the drums beat out the kase (rhythm of possession), people began flailing about the room this way and that. It was something to behold as about 15 people in the room were mounted by Guede himself. They were pouring the dark clarion, which is Guede's favorite drink, all over their faces, even in their eyes. This was truly unbelievable to witness, as the clarion is hotter than hell on the throat alone. Guede is also a beggar by trade, so immediately they began asking us for candy, tobacco, money... luckily we'd brought an abundance of gifts, as is custom when you go anywhere in Haiti.
We kept Guede pacified with his incessant begging and eventually he returned to his raucous dance and mischief. The mambo Marie-Michelle was exhausted, but she had one more duty to fulfill. In a heroic last effort for the night she announced to the room that we should individually visit her one by one to receive our gift. I will not tell you how she bestowed this gift upon us because that is a very personal matter indeed, but I will say that the gift she gave us that night was a "lifetime vaccination against all black magic." I had had many vaccinations and inoculations before I went to the Caribbean, but this was utterly different and priceless indeed. She told us that we were family now and that we would never have any undeserved harm come to us. I was not expecting this kind of treatment when I arrived that evening. We had been transformed from outsiders to family members in one night. I got the feeling this had much to do with our company and association with Lois Wilcken and Gary Augustin.
After administering "vaccinations" to the 30-plus people in the room, Marie-Michelle fell into a deep trance, passing out with her head resting on Manito's lap as the night drew to
￼a close. Occasionally the drums would start playing "Banda" again and people who lying on the ground would begin writhing as if Guede had not entirely left their bodies yet, sometimes rising up again to have another spin around the room. Gary announced that a group would be traveling to the cemetery at dawn to continue the celebration of Guede, but we were too frazzled to continue. We had spent the entire night in the ghetto of Port- au-Prince and were ready to find our way back to our companions, who would no doubt be worried about us by then. As we waited for dawn and our taxi, we spoke with those who could understand us and made arrangements to return the next day to buy a maman drum to take back home with us. The taxi arrived with Gary hanging out of the window waving for us to get in. He accompanied us back to our hotel, where we were locked out until our professor friend, who'd chosen to leave the ceremony at midnight, happened to see us out the window and let us inside.
There are many more chapters to this story. Since returning from Haiti members of that group have had many other adventures in the Caribbean and beyond. We started a folkloric percussion ensemble called ¡Moyuba!, and perform Cuban and Haitian drumming in schools and churches, at parties and in clubs. We perform Haitian drumming every Halloween night to mark the anniversary of our adventure in Haiti.