A Public Space for Vodoun Practice: The Haitian Dance & Drum Conference 2009

Lily Kharrazi - Posted on 22 October 2009

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By Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager
Photos by Kutay Derin Kugay

Haitian alter under constructionThe Haitian Dance & Drum Conference held September 18-20, 2009, in the Bay Area brought together musicians, dancers, lecturers and a host of participants to deepen their experience and understanding of the complex world of Vodoun- based Haitian arts. The project funded by the Living Cultures Grants Program  is under the direction of Mozel Zeke Nealy, a drummer and stalwart of Haitian arts in the Bay Area for over three decades. (www.haitiancamp.com) The conference sought to deepen the awareness of Haitian arts beyond the performance or stage context and this year 's invited guests, master drummer and NEA Heritage Fellow, Frisner Augustin and Mambo Florencia Pierre, a spirtual leader of Vodoun provided a glimpse into true practice among Haitians.  On the concluding day of the conference, a public park in San Francisco became the site of a ritual led by Mambo Florencia Pierre and her daughter Djenane St. Juste.  The warm and brilliant autumn day was filled with the usual picnics, birthday parties, skateboards and puppies.  But in one corner of the park, the complex world of honoring the Vodoun deities came alive.  As an altar was being constructed with the symbols of the deities upon it, blessings were made to the four directions, and the cosmology of the Vodoun world took its shape through the rendering of veves, the symbolic designs that are made on the ground with cornmeal to create the sacred space of the ceremony. Many interested participants and passerbys were led through a ceremony whose intent was to share this practice with outsiders.  The drumming, songs and dance over the next several hours gave not only a sense of the power of the ceremony but led the mambo into a period of trance where she was "visited" by the spirit of a deity until she was brought back from her visit to this alternate reality to rejoin the Bay Area participants to conclude the ceremony.

Altars contain elements that please the deities and the senses.  Specific colors are chosen for the altar, as well as particular foods and objects that correspond to the attributes of the gods or lwa. The red flags are marked with veves, which are sacred drawings that correspond to Vodoun cosmology.

Before the drummers can begin, the ceremony begins with the blessing of the drums with fire and libations by Djenane St. Juste holding a candle (foreground) and Mambo Florencia Pierre following with the shaker.

Director of the conference, Zeke Nealy, (left) and invited master artist, Frisner Augustin (right) lead the afternoon with song and drum.  Each deity is associated with corresponding rhythms and songs. The lead drum, known as the "maman" is draped in red. 

Haitian vodoun practice has been caricatured by misinformation regarding its malevolence.  These unfortunate characterizations have made until recently the practice quite inaccessible to outsiders due to an understandable need for followers to maintain protection from prejudice.  The African based practice relies on the presence of the deities to manifest themselves through specific practitioners who become possessed by the deity.  There are times when through secular activities like dance classes that this possession state will reach a vulnerable practitioner however, rarely does this take place outside of ceremony.

Mambo Florencia was overcome  by the deity Erzulie who characterizes all aspects of the feminine.  The aspect of Erzulie who "came down" on Ms. Florencia was the very flirtatious one who likes men.  In her possessed state, she hugged  the men, throwing herself right on the drum and only offered a polite hand in greeting to the women who stood by.  Possession offers a concrete look at the attributes associated with deities and are useful roadmaps for everyday life often acting as a mirror of what we encounter: love, jealousy, anger, and compassion, to name but a few emotional states.

Another deity, Ogou who is symbolized by a sword was among the pantheon of lwas honored by the ceremony. The attributes of power, both in its positive sense and its negitive manifestation are critical to this lwa.  The dance, drum and song are characterized by driving rhythms, poweful movements that portray his iron will or metallic strength and signify an overall message of power.  Djenane St. Juste (pictured with sword) has danced professionally with Haitain folkloric companies and teaches Haitian dance in the United States now.  As the daughter of Mambo Florencia Pierre, she  has been fully immersed in the practice of Vodoun her whole life.  

At the conclusion of the ceremony, participants were entreated to dance with the drums, partake in rum and to enjoy the fruits from the altar. While the event was designed for outsiders, many traditional elements could not be compromised.  For practictioners and artists such as drummer Frisner Augustin, Mambo Florencia Pierre and dancer Djeanne St. Juste, the borders between homage and presentation can clearly be porous.  It only can leave participants to wonder how powerful the actual Vodoun ceremony might be.  

For a more complete sense of this event, please see this You Tube posting of one part of the afternoon's ceremony.

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A Public Space for Vodoun Practice: The Haitian Dance & Drum Conference 2009


Fresh fruits and vegetables adorn an altar at the 7th Annual Haitian Dance and Drum Retreat, which was sponsored in part by ACTA's Living Culture Grants Program.  Altars contain elements that please the Vodoun deities and the senses.   Specific colors are chosen for the altar, as well as particular foods and objects that correspond to the attributes of the gods, or lwa.   Photo: Kutay Kugay, 2009


Mambo is possessed