Arts: Let the ceremony begin

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The Independent Online
Voodoo services were once demonised and suppressed. Now they are being brought to the stage as performance art. But is it the real thing?

ON A SWELTERING afternoon in the rue Marcajoux, Port au Prince, in Haiti, having paid pounds 40 for the arrangements, I set off with Edgard Jean-Louis, houngan (voodoo priest), from his funeral parlour to attend an example of the voodoo religious service, "Vodou Nation", he has taken to Britain.

By the time we arrive at the hounfo (temple), a tropical downpour is forming streams in the mud alleys and drumming on the metal roof. "This is okay," he says. "We want to call cooler Iwa, not violent spirits, and the rain will encourage them."

The hounfo is made of concrete and corrugated metal with a dirt floor, decorated in red and green paint and paper streamers. A telephone sits beside the vital central pole, the poteau mitan, down which the spirits will make their way.

The three drummers and the female servants start the series of ritual rhythms and incantations, punctuated with choruses of the voodoo Amen, Ay-bobo!. A sequence of prayers to Catholic saints, the trickling, through Edgard's long, gaunt and expert fingers, of the yellow powder to trace a veve, or symbol of the specific Iwa. The initiates circle in a slow, swaying dance, around the pole.

Suddenly, Edgard's cousin, Jean-Roni, staggers, half-falls and reels yelping and twitching to a small chair, on which he proceeds to propel himself around the floor, aided by punting motions with a large stick. Agwe, the spirit of water and shipping, whose veve Edgard just traced, has taken possession of Jean-Roni and is rowing himself around the temple.

A succession of other Iwa follow: Damballah, the snake god, writhing in his human receptacle on the floor; Azaka, the peasant, whose denim work-clothes Papa Doc Duvalier's Tonton Macoutes used to affect; Ogou Feraille, the warlike alter ego of Saint James, brandishing his cutlass and charging hither and thither.

Halfway through the ceremony, the coquette spirit Erazulie, in possession of a stocky and powerful matron, decides she wants to fondle some white ass. There is only one specimen present, perched up on a concrete ledge for better viewing - and to avoid situations like this.

"Descends de la, mon blanc!" barks Erzulie, quivering below me like a hound who has cornered a racoon up a tree, and I jump dutifully down to be manhandled, hair-ruffled, and relieved of a two-dollar tribute by the goddess who, incidentally, is a distant cousin, in ecclesiastical terms, of Princess Diana.

The Diana connection comes to light back at the Enterprise Funeraire at Ste Philomene, where we sit by a large blue coffin to talk and to inspect Edgard's sequinned voodoo flags. The pantheon of spirits worshipped in voodoo includes not only mythical beings from the old African cults of Benin and Dahomey, but deified ancestors and historical figures.

Edgard is in the process of incorporating into his latest work the image of the late Princess, whom he considers an embodiment of Erzulie: not the rough, black, sexy Erzulie I tangled briefly with, but a white regal manifestation, closer to the Virgin Mary - Erzulie's Catholic equivalent. Edgard speaks slowly and seriously, keen to co-operate to the maximum.

How did he become a houngan? The son of a baker, he did badly at school, plagued by headaches until a friend of the family diagnosed his problem as spirit-inspired. As he accepted his vocation, the headaches gradually ceased and he went through the various stages of initiation until he became a houngan at the age of 30.

Now he officiates at the dozen voodoo feasts a year plus special ceremonies whenever a devotee is prepared to stump up the necessary money for drinks, transport and animals if a sacrifice is to be included.

The issue of performance voodoo, and its authenticity, is clearly of central importance. The Port au Prince suburb of Mariani still contains the large blue building where once Max Beauvoir, a prominent society houngan and intimate of Baby Doc Duvalier, entertained well-heeled initiates and tourists before being obliged to decamp to the US on Duvalier's overthrow. Edgard disapproved of Beauvoir, he claims, but is he flirting with the same career move?

Seeking clarification, I consult some academic experts on voodoo, of whom there is no shortage.

From New York, Professor Gerdes Fleurant, a houngan and sociologist, sees no problem with voodoo ritual as a spectacle. "If it's a voodoo ceremony it will be genuine, even if staged specially," he says. But Professor Gage Averill, musicologist and Haiti expert, concedes that the demands of showbiz could undermine authenticity. "If no one is actually possessed, but there is an audience paying to see possession, there is obviously going to be pressure to simulate possession," he says.

Whatever the result, this pressure can only increase, because voodoo's cultural acceptance has never been higher. Born of African slave resistance, outlawed, demonised, suppressed by successive "anti-superstition campaigns", manipulated by the Duvaliers' regime to create fear and suspicion, voodoo was finally made an official religion in 1987.

For the past decade and a half, racines music - a sort of voodoo rock developed by middle-class bands such as Boukman Eksperyans - has spread to "world music" markets around the world, and Port au Prince now has a weekly radio programme, Radio Ginen, which is devoted entirely to voodoo- based popular music.

A major exhibition, the "Sacred Art of Voodoo", is currently touring prestigious US galleries. Now the voodoo ceremony itself is becoming performance. Last year, a prominent Haitian mambo (female priest) Madame Nerval, brought a sort of voodoo review to France, establishing European ground rules: no animal sacrifices, no fire rituals (as in blazing pools of rum in honour of Ogou Feraille).

Even the British Foreign Office, it seems, is not immune to the lure of the Iwa. Edgard's group repeats with unceasing delight the heroic fable of one Alan Robson, Her Majesty's Consul in Jamaica, who was sent to Port au Prince to double-check the large group of highly dubious UK visa applications.

After two days of apparently sceptical interviews, the voodooists were in despair of getting permission to visit London when Mr Robson eventually asked to see what exactly these people did.

Whether it was Damballah, the snake god, or big, black Erzulie who finally got to him no one is saying, but a reportedly overwhelmed Mr Robson granted all the visas on the spot.