Tuesday, October 2, 2012

An Excerpt From My Early Fieldnotes

Friday, October 30th Carol, her babalawo's wife and daughter, and I all took a trip down to Brown University in Rhode Island for a Haitian Vodoun presentation. The talk was held in a rectangular room with dark wood floors, elaborate cream molding, and light green walls. Crystal light fixtures framed tall draped windows, and portraits of European ancestors were spaced along the walls. In front of the cream and marble fireplace was a long table covered in a white cloth. On top of it were all the offerings for the spirits: rum, grapes, flowers, pineapples, cake, lit candles, peanuts, liquors, apples, bananas, rice pudding, and more. The offerings for the rada spirits were on the right, those for the petro on the left. To the right of the table a low basket lined with a white cloth and filled with sweets for the community sat in a plush salmon chair. To the left of the table, next to a stately grandfather clock, were staffs and a top hat - the accouterments of gede, the spirits of the dead. In front of the table someone had drawn a veve (symbol representing a specific spirit) in cornmeal on the ground. Normally there would be veves for at least five spirits, but we were told that this one was a veve for all the spirits called Milocan, one I had never seen before.

There was an open space in front of the table, chairs for the members of the house along the wall on the left, and the three drummers on the wall to the right.

The rest of the room had chairs for the audience. The presentation opened with one of my Haitian Kreyol professors speaking briefly at a podium. He introduced Mambo M, his spiritual mother, who in addition to being a high Vodoun priestess (Mambo Asongwe) is in the process of getting her MA in psychological counseling. He also introduced Jean, the very talented dancer and houngan who teaches the Haitian folklore dancing courses. Jean spoke then about embracing Vodoun and dance as a way to heal after his family's traumas. He also gave a brief but beautiful dance dressed as gede. Then Manbo M spoke about Vodoun and explained that it is a healing tradition through which the community comes together to worship, celebrate, and repair. She then told us that she had asked the spirits and they had given her their blessing to hold an abbreviated ceremony that would only be able to honor some of the lwas. With that, she and the members of her house began the ceremony.

White candles were lit and placed upon the hardwood floors in front of the altar and drummers. Mambo M took her place on the small wicker chair in front of the table and began the action de grace, a series of prayers that can last hours or even days. The sheer number of prayers and songs that she has memorized is astounding. Then, individual spirits were honored through song and prayer as the drums beat out a rhythm to the rituals. Carol and I initially tried to follow along with our handout, but eventually we gave up and learned to just relax and enjoy the festivities. Members of the house offered candles, libations, and liquor to the lwas as the songs built up from honoring the border between worlds, to spirit of the drums carrying our messages, to the road of the spirits and then Legba, the guardian of the crossroads. Then they sang praises and offered sacrifice to the Marasa (sacred twins), Loko (the first houngan), Ayizan (the first mambo), and then many, many others.

The beat of the drums filled the room, dictating the steps of the dancers and guiding the cycle of prayers, songs, and offerings made to each spirit in turn. The audience swayed in their seats and the petitioners moved their bare feet in time to the drums, throwing back their shoulders and swinging their hips as they called to the lwas. The drums cried out an intense and irresistible rhythm, refusing to be ignored as they thumped and pounded, demanding movement as they tapped into the eternal biorhythm of our bodies, calling forth step and spirit, dance and devotion. And then the spirits came.

At first the lwas come briefly, but as the ceremony heats up so too does the length of their stay. During the song for Ezili Freda, the beautiful lwa of love, luxury, and femininity, Mambo M stumbled the misstep of possession as her body and spirit fell out of sync. The others caught her as the spirit mounted, and Ezili awoke with wide eyes and examined the audience. The others adorned her with a shiny pink cloth and sprayed her with perfume. Once settled in the body, Ezili Freda began by hugging the men in the room, embracing each and giving a kiss on the cheek. As the flirtatious virgin, she enjoys the attention of admirers. As she walked through the audience, greeting the men (and women with unisex hair and clothing), she went behind two girls seated next to each other. She rolled her back on theirs and soon went on her way, but it was clear the girls were very uncomfortable and confused. Later we learned that one of the girls was Haitian, but her family disapproved of Vodou, and the other girl was American Christian. Neither had ever seen a possession and may not have even realized what they were in for when they decided to attend the presentation.

After making her rounds, Ezili Freda returned to the front of the room where I was seated. She smiled at me and reached out both hands. I returned the gesture and she clasped my hands, guiding me out of my chair and holding hands we danced in a circle for a few moments. She then hugged me, pulled back, placed a hand on my chest and gave me a motherly look that seemed to say she understood and felt my pain. She then moved on to another individual and I returned to my seat. Soon after she left and the mambo returned to her own body, though she seemed disconnected and tired, almost as if she were hungover.

Next, I remember Zaka, the cousin  mounting first one woman and then another. His stay was not as long as Ezili's, but he donned his hat and bag and through the second woman shook our hands.

The last of the spirits was guest of honor Ghede. As the spirits of the dead, Ghede is celebrated in November since All Saints Day represents the connection between the living and the dead. Ghede is a sexual, free spirit who represents death and fertility, the end that is not an end, and a celebration of all parts of human existence. As Ghede there are no inhibitions, and this is evident in the way he dances. He took over one of the female initiates and donned his top hat and cane, inviting women to dance with him. He called to one of the girls mentioned earlier but at first she was reluctant, having seen the sexual gyrations expected of someone dancing with Ghede. But encouraged by the members of the house, after a pause she joined Ghede, the staff placed between them as they danced. Then Ghede took her hand and spun her around, something he often does in order to call down other members of his Ghede family. Unfamiliar with any Vodou traditions, she was still almost overwhelmed by the experience, and losing control she stumbled as members of the house caught her and guided her to a chair. She remained seated for the rest of the ceremony, looking dazed and almost hungover. Later she asked what had happened and when Carol suggested she get a reading from the mambo she agreed.

However, Ghede was unfazed and continued inviting people to dance. He came over to me and guided me out into the floor where he placed his staff between both of our thighs and we danced. Then, he moved on to other members of the house celebrating his birthday party with more dancing, liquor, and cigarettes. Eventually the professor and the mambo closed the ceremony because, unlike the usual all nighters, Brown expected us to leave by a certain time. Ghede didn't want to leave at first, but the party was over once it became clear that there was to be a serious question and answer section.

While I found much of the discussion interesting personally, I won't bore everyone with my academic notes. After it was over, we talked over some pizza and piled back into the car and headed back to Boston.

No comments:

Post a Comment