Collections: Lois Wilcken - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Vodou Rites in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1995)

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A manbo (female Vodou priest) is possessed by Gede, spirit of the dead, during a ritual in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1995. Image from video © Lois Wilcken.

This collection captures sacred rites of Haitian Vodou in a community of Portail Léogane on the southern limits of the capital city Port-au-Prince. Haitian Vodou encompasses the spiritual beliefs and practices of people who amalgamated and developed the combined sacred traditions of West and West Central Africans brought to the island as slaves from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Although practiced for two centuries since Haitian independence (1804), Vodou remains one of the most poorly understood of the world's religions, and little research has focused on its ongoing evolution in Haiti's urban enclaves, particularly those of the poor. This collection responds to these shortfalls.

The collector has known the rituals' key figure, Mimose Louis, since 1982, when her main informant in New York City, Master Drummer Frisner Augustin, traveled with her to Haiti. Augustin introduced the collector to Louis, his cousin, along with other members of his family and his native community. By 1991, the year of the first ritual, Louis had advanced to the Vodou priesthood but had not yet established her own society (spiritual community); rather, she served in the society of an oungan (male priest) named Jean Mondy. Mondy, then, presided over the collection's first event, a dance ritual for the spirit St. Clare. This ritual exemplifies Vodou's appropriation of Roman Catholic saints into its fundamentally African-derived pantheon, and the recording captured several possession performances. It provides a glimpse into Louis's apprenticeship as a manbo (female priest).

The balance of the collection's events documents the emergence of Louis's society in 1995, following Mondy's departure from Haiti. The first event took place in a space that society members had just created by demolishing the wall between two rooms of Louis's family home. This ritual feasted the Marasa, the sacred Twins who manifest as children and thus represent beginnings. The Marasa belong to a spiritual nation of Guinea Coast provenance called Rada, and therefore an all-night dance ritual for the Rada nation followed. The final event of the collection documented the opening phase of the Vodou initiation cycle in which the society binds pake, packets of stunning design that evolved from healing bags of the Congo region. This collection testifies to the persistent power and appeal of Vodou in the urban communities of Haiti, and it captures the excitement of a society coming into its own as a significant force in the life of one such community.

This collection is currently in production and is not yet available to the public.

Image © Lois Wilcken

Lois Wilcken (PhD, Ethnomusicology, Columbia University), a native New Yorker, has had the pleasure of researching the traditional music and dance of Haiti in Port-au-Prince and New York City's Haitian neighborhoods. She shares her experiences with academic and general audiences. Dr. Wilcken works for City Lore, a center for folk arts in New York City, and she administers and develops programs with La Troupe Makandal, a drum and dance group from Port-au-Prince that settled in Brooklyn, New York, in 1981. Drawing on her research, Dr. Wilcken has created public performances and workshops for Makandal, and she has taken the company across the United States, to Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, and, most recently, to Tokyo. White Cliffs Media Company published her book, The Drums of Vodou, in 1992. In 1998, the Institute for the Study of American Music/University of Illinois Press published Island Sounds in the Global City, which she co-edited with Dr. Ray Allen. Her essays appear in academic journals, collections, and encyclopedias, and she presents frequently at meetings of the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Haitian Studies Association, the Latin American Studies Association, the International Council for Traditional Music, and other scholarly organizations. La Médiathèque Caraïbe, a research center in Guadeloupe, has mounted French and English versions of Dr. Wilcken's Vodou Music in Haiti exhibit.

Additional Information:

Vodou Music in Haiti Website:

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