In preparation for our class presentation Jonas and I met to discuss the elements of this article. We decided that it would be most beneficial to the class to spilt the article in the five digestable sections: Vodou origins, Vodou representations through media and history, Vodou in politics, and Vodou in the context of transnationalism. After further discussion, we also decided that it would be best to preface each section with a general question to prompt class discussion. Jonas and I believe that this discussion would be best executed through a Power Point presentation. In our presentation we made sure to include visual and audio examples that expertly demonstrated the elements of this belief system. Finally, once we were finished with outlining the important aspects of the article we agreed that an interactive ice breaker (in conjunction with having everyone write an interesting fact on the board) would be best before beginning our presentation. For this activity we gave every one an outline of a “Voodoo doll,” and asked everyone to write their biases of they had on Vodou before reading the article. Near the end of our presentation we had the class share their misguided views of Vodou. This exercise emphasized the true significance of the article and brought the entire message full circle.  Below is a general outline that we made before constructing our power point presentation, our presentation, and the script/notes we worked off of during the class.

General Outline for Presentation

Preliminary Section – Introduction

First Question: “What parts of this article shocked you the most? What stood out the most?” 

  • Themes

Second Section – History / Origins

Second Question: “What are some key elements of Vodou?”

  • Origins of Vodou – timeline, countries
  • Vocabulary
  • Spirit Nations // Spirits
  • Dance
  • Elements of music // Call & Response // Anti-Rhythm

Third Section – Theatre, Film, Media. Historian Representations

Third Question: “How is Vodou received in society?”

Cultural Misrepresentations Through

  • Missionaries, Travelers, Historian Accounts
    • Moreau de Saint-Mercy
      • “Horrible contortions”
      • “A sort of epilepsy”
      • “Monotonous”
    • Le Menuet Congo
      • Social Darwinism
  • Theatre
  • Fiction
  • Film
    • The White Zombie

Fourth Section – Vodou as an Agent of Political Change // Influence in Society

Fourth Question: “How does Vodou influence society?”

  • Revolution
    • Blood pact
  • Liberalism
  • Dictatorship

Fifth Section – Transnationalism / Masking

Fifth Question: “How has Vodou been affected by the diaspora?

  • Elements lost in translation
  • Purposefully modified for a Eurocentric audience
    • “Don’t make it too real…”
  • Privileged/ Outsides
  • Racial Bias / Class Bias

Link to our PowerPoint. 


In-depth Class Discussion Script


The article begins with an excerpt from a sort of crude recounting from Moreau de Saint-Mery of the spiritual dancing of Haitian Vodou. In Moreau’s perspective the dancing is primitive and primal, acting as a guise to distract and ultimately evade “the vigilance of the authorities.” Moreau believes that this was an elaborate show to “ensure the success of secret meetings”

Now it’s very important that Lois Wilcken opens the article with this account. It is a prime example of how Haitian Vodou has not only been misrepresented, but also misinterpreted since the 16th century and even before.

The crux of the matter is that outsiders have consistently misportrayed vodou through various media and history itself. And to make matters worse, they have also denied those involved in such cultural practices the right to contest and address these misrepresentations. With this dilemma comes a plethora of moral and political implications that systematically deteriorate the reputation and legacy of authentic Haitian Vodou.


Who is Lois Wilcken?

  • Native New Yorker
  • Alumni of Columbia University
  • Earned her PhD in Ethnomusicology in 1991
  • Researched traditional music and dance of Haiti in port-au-Prince
  • Has experiences in the field for over 24 years at the time of publication
  • Manages a folklore company that performs out of a Haitian immigrant based in NYC
  • Vodou initiates
    • She will speak of the:
      • Theatrical and dramatic elements of the tradition
      • Trajectory of Vodou representation from Moreau’s day to the present

Origins of Vodou

  • Vodou is the predominant culture and religion for more than 8 million people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora.
  • Vodou is a product of the pressures of various cultures and ethnicities of people being uprooted from Africa and imported to Hispaniola during the African slave trade.
  • This belief system is heavily rooted in the idea of spirit nations.
    • Most of these nations can be linked back to Africa
      • Concentrating around the Gulf of Guinea, and the Congo River Basin, Rada, Djouba, Nago, Ibo, Kongo, Petwo, and Gede.
  • Music and specifically dance is a majority element in Vodou life
    • “A time and place for the community to get down with the spirits”
    • All night-affair
  • Preparatory work for Vodou includes: animal sacrifice, tracing magic diagrams on the ground, and setting the altar
  • Follow a ritual order called Regleman, that begins with the nation, Rada and the cosmic spirit, Ounto, the grand drummer.
  • Generally, in Vodou songs they have two slow beats of the drum ensemble pattern that embrace one dance pattern. The details of the dance pattern characterize a spirit nation.
    • Yanvalou for example: mimics the movement of the serpent.
  • Call and response structure of Vodou songs stresses the importance of having a collective
    • The soloist “sends” (voye) the song, and a chorus “answers” (reponn)
  • Vodou drumming provides fuel for the dance and guides participants in their movement.
    • Slow pulse highlights key words of the song text
    • Characterised by the subdivision of the slow pulse by two or three
    • Each rhythm generates an anti rhythm called a kase
      • Drummers use a plethora of techniques in order to create opposition
      • Kase → opposes the main pattern, destabilizes the dancer, and leads to possession
  • Iwa are also a huge part of the Vodou belief system, and the reside in the psyche rather than somewhere physical like in Africa
  • The practice of head washing “lave tet” realizes the residency of Iwa within a person’s head.
    • The presence of a spirit of Iwa in a person’s head space can only be physically manifested through the Vodou dance, the behavior of the spirits identifies them to the congregation.
  • They greet the faithful, eat, drink, sing, dance, counsel, and perform
  • Spiritual possession consists of many things such as: facial expression, gesture, vocalization, and props
  • Many theatrical elements are incorporated into Vodou such as dramatic salutatory greetings, pouring of linerations, and the interaction of the possessed in society, the chorus, and the intense and dynamic drumming


Vodou in Literature, Theatre, and Film

    • Earliest accounts of Vodou is in the writings of missionaries, travelers, and historians
  • “De la Danse”  1789 essay by Moreau de Saint-Mery, very rich description of the Vodou culture, but nevertheless a completely racist perspective that degrades the sanctity of the Vodou dance → described as: “horrible contortions” and “a sort of epilepsy” to describe the incipient dance petwo and the word “monotonous” to characterize the african drumming  
  • Ignace Nau’s Une scene creole. Liberal writers argued for nativist literature and incorporated the Vodou belief system into Haiti’s cultural identity
    • “Championed the culture of the oppressed” and even did so much as to acknowledge the presence of Vodou in Haitian identity
  • US marine or journalist with a knack for writing would create an enticing story “voodoo” with special attention to the zonbi, the soulless body of the Haitian Legend.
  • William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island (1929) which inspired the movie The White Zombie (1932).
    • Exclaimed that Haiti needed the white man to solve problems caused by their own ignorance and negligence.
      • Only works to intensify the misrepresentation of Haiti
  • Neo Nativist movement spurred by the work of Jean Price-Mars in 1973 who produced an ethnography of nation’s masses, which introduced the idea of Haitian “folklore” and writers and musicians could incorporate elements of this folklore into their work
    • Developed rapidly into black nationalism, called noirism or negritude.
    • This movement gained the presidency in 1946 through a coup d’etat.
      • Built a national theater to house national performing groups such as La Troupe Folklorique Nationale
      • Vodou is now has status as a national symbol; a huge difference from what it once was considered


Vodou and Political Adversity

    • Afro-Haitian rites claimed a role in a pinnacle event of Atlantic history
    • In August 1791, a general insurrection of slave shook the northern plains around the vital port city Cap Francais.
    • The ceremony of Bwa Kayiman (a wooded area of a northern plantation)
      • All account name Boukman, a plantation foreman, as officiant
      • Some accounts include an unnamed female priest, the sacrifice of a swine,  a blood pact, and Boukamn’s invocation of an African deity, and the distribution of wanga or gad (talismans or spiritual tools of defense)
      • There is therefore a Bwa Kayiman dance associated with it
        • The sacred ceremony of Bwa Kayiman is a tool in the construction of Haitian national identity
        • Demonstrates that colonist used to depict revolutionaries in this primitive and lurid perspective.
          • And in this way fail to recognize africans as fully human
      • The rest of this section goes into depth about how the elite in Haiti held disdain for black spirituality and Vodou practices. The elite prioritize Christianity as the spiritual dimension of Haitian rather than the Vodou.
        • Except when they need it is beneficial for them to accept Vodou as having some sort of profound cultural significance.
    • In Port-au-Prince in 1864 Sir Spenser St.John, a retired British diplomat, told the infamous Affaire de Bizoton in his memoirs.
      • A group of 8 was executed for the crime of cannibalism
  • Instead of characterizing the crime as it was, he attested that it was evidence of Haitian savagery and superstition — the stuff of Vodou.
    • This is just one of many documented instances where Vodou was heavily stigmatized
  • Liberals inspired poverty stricken cultivators to rise up in 1844, the new liberal government deceived them, denying them the access to literacy → the most valuable skill set to self-representation
  • The United States criminalized Vodou and exploited it as a means to rationalized the 19-year occupation of Haiti
  • Duvalier dictatorship dispersed the efforts of the national folklore company forcing many individuals to fled Haiti and regroup in the diaspora.
    • In the late 70’s, a revival of tourism created a new demand for the “Voodoo show” *write voodoo on the board, the spelling is significant*
      • These just amounted to “wild parodies,” stage performances that struggled between chaos and control


Transnationalism and Masking

  • Work from groups such as La Troupe Folklorique National was undoubtedly shaped by the styles, ideas, and perspectives of the privileged.
    • So while the dance patterns are largely from Vodou they are also taken from Carnival and other “secular dance patterns” then filtered into a European dance framework
    • They call it choreography; despite the fact that Vodou is rooted in spontaneity and authenticity in the moment with the interaction with spirits
    • The Choreography uses floor patterns, the “unpredictable words” and acts of spirits are all predetermined
    • The dynamic drummer is reduced down to a mere accompaniment
    • The kase is a structural device rather than a spiritual one
      • Every aspect of this fabricated Vodou satisfies desire for something foreign and haitian but is still a platform that largely privileged actors can identify with
      • In my opinion it is like the dissection of a culture, taking bits and pieces of what you want and leaving out the rest detracts not only from its authenticity but also its cultural significance.
  • The transnational movement in relation to Haitian Vodou is very much exemplified by the Makandal → La Troupe Makandal were initially a group of impoverished teenagers living in Port-au-Prince that blended aspects of both folklore and the voodoo show (named their company after a magician)
    • 1981 came to NY on visas
  • Acclimated to the spetak environment which emulated traditional Haitian traditions through festivals that were reminiscent of those back home
  • La Troupe Makandal was regarded as an excellent example of Haitian authenticity
    • Premiered at a spetak environment in Brooklyn College
    • Musicologist/presenter subsequently hired them to perform the “real thing” the “ceremony” “just like they do at home” but this was something the company really struggled with
    • The real ceremony was all-night long, that had to pick and chose which gods to leave out and figure out how to shorten an authentic spiritual experience
    • They struggled to define their suited style in New York
    • They were forced to tailor their heritage in order to make it more palatable for a eurocentric audiences
      • This follows Alan Goldberg’s theory of “masking” a phenomenon where Haitians develop way to alter their cultural resources in order to avoid the criticism and exploitation of outsiders
      • “Don’t make it too real. People will see what they want to see anyways”
      • Haitian artist explore new instruments, new technologies, engage with North American artists; mixing bass guitar, horns, and drums.
      • Outsiders again determining the boundaries of cultural identity
  • How one identifies with Vodou is determined by racial and class bias
  • Through history there has always been outside control on the narrative that defines Vodou on an international stage → many negative connotations and harsh “voodoo” stereotypes follow Vodou because this lack of control
    • This lack of control is of course a product of illiteracy, which leaves Haitians with an authentic perspective unable to disseminate real information
    • Haitian Vodou in film is notoriously dominated by Hollywood, the film industry in Haiti is practically nonexistent and this leads to more misrepresentation
    • When it comes to Vodou it is a problem of authority: who gets to represent the culture of a group of people, the people themselves or the elite?
    • Black nationalism and its failure to include the voices of the oppressed, and its tendency to rob men and women of their ethnic identity
      • This is because nationalism equates itself with culture and virtually ignoring class differences among people in its own borders
        • Nationalists claim Vodou as their own reducing it down to a matter of blackness: but Vodou embodies specific modes of marginality, repression, and resistance which contradict to Haitian privileged.