Spirits in the material world

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Something dark is lurking in clubland. Voodoo spirits are being called to the dancefloor but, says Oliver Bennett, that's even more reason why you should join the party

CLUBS ARE renowned for their neophilia: their constant search for the new and the shocking, the exciting and excessive. But despite the best efforts of the black-eyed chemical evangelists, they have seen little religious ritual - unless you count the likes of Sheffield's infamous Nine O'Clock Service a few years back.

Next Friday, however, punters at Bagley's Studios in London can see a genuine voodoo ritual performed by a 65-year-old priest, Edgard Jean Louis, who has been flown in from Haiti especially for the event. In it the priest will evoke the spirits of voodoo during a marathon music and dance ritual at the nightclub, to be followed a week later by a similar event at Liverpool's Cream superclub. And the Friday night hordes at the venues, both of which are more commonly associated with all that is musically and cerebrally "bangin'", will have the chance to get to grips with a genuine vodou ceremony (the word is spelt with two fewer "o"s and a concluding "u" among the au fait): the first such event to be held in public in the UK.

Strange choice of venue, you might think. But Haitian researcher Leah Gordon, whose 1997 film on voodoo, A Pig's Tale, will be shown at the event, reckons a nightclub is completely appropriate. "A vodou ceremony is about six hours long and you can walk in and out, so the form is absolutely right for a nightclub," she says. "If it was at some straight venue, it might well turn into a neutered folkloric display, consisting of edited highlights." And Jean Louis - who is an undertaker by day - is completely game.

"I think it's perfectly appropriate," adds Andy Woods of !Como No!, promoters for the London event. "In terms of contemporary dance music, there's a sort of connection, partly because so much of it has derived from Africa and the Caribbean, and also because House music and its offshoots are so often about achieving transcendent state." Indeed, adds Wood, the drumming patterns of the vodou ceremony are quite similar to certain types of dance music.

Jonny Sender, the deejay for the night, who is usually to be found in New York City deejaying at venues like Nells, reckons that the history of disco is pregnant with residues of ritualistic religion. "The spiritual experience is mirrored in the club experience," he says.

"Some people take disco very seriously as a religious event, and ritual music has had a big input on the history of club music. It's about people dancing into an altered state - and that can mean secretaries dancing to the Spice Girls as well as underground trance all-nighters."

One of the challenges that vodou faces is its scary public perception, and various church-people, as well as sections of the Black community, have already railed against the Vodou Nation night. "The moment you mention that it's vodou, you get shock horror as well as fascination," says Woods. "If you say to a parish priest `we're going to have a voodoo ceremony', obviously he's going to object. There's a degree of hysteria about it." Woods thinks that vodou's fear factor stems from the 1950s and 1960s in America, when "hoodoo voodoo" became a bogeyman of popular culture, but Gordon thinks that the fear of vodou goes even deeper. "I believe it goes back to the revolution of 1791 in Haiti, which started at a vodou ceremony," she says. "After this, Haiti became the first Black republic, which sent shock waves across the colonies. It became a symbol of independence, and this is probably why vodou has been demonised." A problem securing visas for the team illustrated to Gordon that this fear endures - though on the other hand, Gordon has found that some vodou priests seem perfectly happy to play on the fear of vodou.

But should your average club punter, having it large in Bagley's and Cream over the next two weeks, fear possession by vodou spirits? "Well, I've been to several vodou ceremonies and it hasn't happened to me yet," says Gordon, though she admits that she has dreamed of the spirits while in Haiti on research trips. "I suspect that the possession side is probably learned, as part of a social process. But when Boukman Eksperyans (a Haitian band that are accompanying the ceremony) played in Paris, people claimed to become possessed. If clubbers are into the idea enough, then maybe they will." Watch out for your mate talking in tongues, or whirling around saying "the drums, geezer, the drums".

Vodou Nation is on at Bagley's Studios, York Way, London N1 next Friday, and at Cream, Parr Street, Liverpool, on Fri 22 May.