Songs of the road

By Simon Lee

Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English, by Benjamin Hebblethwaite
(Temple University Press, ISBN 9781439906026, 396 pp)

Nan Dòmi: An Initiate’s Journey into Haitian Vodou, by Mimerose Beaubrun, trans. D.J. Walker
(City Lights Books, ISBN 978-0-87286-574-7, 280 pp)

Detail of a Haitian vodou flag for Sen Jak and Danbala (mid twentieth century, artist unknown), from the collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Detail of a Haitian vodou flag for Sen Jak and Danbala (mid twentieth century, artist unknown), from the collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Haiti and its Vodou worldview have been and continue to be demonised, essentialised, or sensationalised by Hollywood, international aid agencies, and a host of outsiders with their own agendas. Two recent books on Vodou provide precisely the insider perceptions and experience, along with invaluable source material, which allow those with a genuine interest, rather than vicarious thrill-seekers, to understand and appreciate the living tradition which sustains Haitians either at home or in the diaspora.

Benjamin Hebblethwaite’s masterful collection of Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English is a major contribution to many fields of contemporary scholarship. The book easily spans Caribbean and Haitian studies, history, cultural studies, comparative religion, linguistics, literature, anthropology, and ethnography. Besides collecting and collating many previous (mostly out-of-print) song collections (by such Haitian luminaries as Jacques Roumain, Jean Price-Mars, Milo Marcelin, and Werner Jaeguerhuber, along with Harold Courlander’s 1940s collection), Hebblethwaite includes songs given to him by the young Haitian emigrant “JL”, which demonstrate conclusively that Vodou is very much alive and relevant to a new generation, at home and away.

The real significance of Vodou Songs lies in its bilingual presentation of a body of songs previously accessible only to Haitian Creole speakers. As Hebblethwaite notes: “Vodou songs constitute the living memory of a Vodou community. They belong not to a fixed tradition but to one that is constantly evolving . . . Songs are created, retained, transformed, and forgotten . . . Each community has its own tradition of songs that members acquire; the songs form a profound religious and cultural heritage that traverses the ages and refreshes the present.”

With no centralised institution or liturgy, Hebblethwaite’s book provides access to “a representative collection of Vodou sacred literature,” source material he soundly contends is a prerequisite for the study of any major religion and culture. The objective is entirely generous, to open up a tradition to interpretation and exegesis based on “subjective context,” where a text is read in the light of its “own cultural traditions.”

As a Haitian Creole expert, Hebblethwaite is sensitive to the problems that the very act of textualising orally transmitted songs presents. He emphasises the fluid, spontaneous, and open dynamic which characterises Vodou. “Vodou songs are revealed or inspired by the lwa themselves,” he writes. “The tradition of Vodou cannot be boxed into a canon, because the lwa are living and forever revealing themselves to their followers . . . Vodou is lived and practiced through music, dance and song, visual symbolism, ritual, liturgy, and possession.”

The songs themselves offer unprecedented insights into aspects of Haitian history and Creole language from the apocryphal days of the 1791 Bwa Kayiman ceremony through the War of Independence, and right up to the 1990s. If Lapriyè Boukman reflects the revolutionary rhetoric of the 1790s —

Bondje blan an mande krim
e pa nou vle byenfè
Men Dje pa nou an ki si bon
òdonnen nou vanjans

(The white God asks for crimes
But our God who is so good
commands us to seek vengeance)

— many of JL’s songs voice contemporary issues: Gen kat bagay ki divize n: / se lajan, lanfanm, ladwòg, latè (“There are four things that divide us: / it’s money, women, drugs, the land”).

Vodou Songs would be invaluable solely on the grounds of its song translations; however, there is much more to the book. With its extensive ninety-eight-page dictionary of Vodou terminology and a further appendix outlining the basic grammar of Haitian Creole, in addition to the essays which introduce and contextualise each collection, and a series of photos, present and future scholars as well as interested laypeople now have at their fingertips a one-stop research resource, complemented by a digital archive, covering both the communal and domestic worship traditions of Vodou.

Leading historians of the Haitian Revolution, including Laurent Dubois, have already noted the new perspectives offered by Hebblethewaite’s painstaking rehabilitation of such valuable source material. Undoubtedly, Vodou Songs will open up new vistas in the study of Haitian literature, culture, language, and society, and establish a new benchmark in both research philosophy and practice.

Just as Vodou Songs provides unprecedented access to a broad range of the sung traditions of Vodou, Mimerose Beaubrun’s Nan Dòmi opens the barriers between this world and Ginen anba dlo (“Africa beneath the waters”). What distinguishes Beaubrun’s text from the many anthropological studies of Vodou previously published is that it eschews the public ritual aspects of the religion, to focus entirely on its private, inner, mystical elements as experienced by an initiated vodouist. Beaubrun allows her readers to accompany her on her path, with all its trials, terrors, dead-ends, frustrations, and revelations from the kalfou (crossroads) of this world, to the realm of Nan Dòmi (a state of lucid dreaming) and the mystic heart of Vodou, where in the state of possession ego is abandoned and the initiate incarnates as a divine spirit.

Beaubrun is already well known as a Mizik Rasin (Vodou Roots) performer and singer. Along with her husband Theodore “Lòlò” Beaubrun, she was a founding member of the seminal band Boukman Eksperyans, which in the wake of the Duvalier regime became one of the leading voices of the Lavalas populist movement that brought Aristide to power.

Both husband and wife have immersed themselves in the inner and outer worlds of Vodou: gathering traditional songs from the sacred lakous (compounds where ceremonies are conducted in and outside the hounfor) and familiarising themselves with some of the many ceremonial rhythms which are the vehicle of possession. In addition to the couple’s musical research, Beaubrun was gathering material for an anthropological thesis on the “multi-dimensional life of the lakou.” What began as an academic exercise imperceptibly morphed into a spiritual quest: “Little by little the forces internal to this system ended up transforming me, causing me to evolve in another direction.”

Sceptics may be either disarmed or distressed by Beaubrun’s admission that her transformation involved “the dismantling of what formerly constituted the structure of my intellectual development.” “I . . . know that my experience is beyond comprehension,” she writes. However, anyone’s necessary suspension of disbelief is eased by the suggestiveness of her explanation: “Little by little I developed a second mode of ‘paying attention’: dreaming became an art. That art combines the attitudes which, guided by a particular kind of control, can make you tumble into another mode of consciousness.”

What Beaubrun describes is a technique for altering consciousness, which is certainly analogous to Zen or Tibetan Buddhist meditation, or the Christian concept of “dying to be reborn.” Those walking the path of any tradition of mysticism are required to abandon the constraints of ego, intellect, and the constructs of lower levels of consciousness. What is doubly striking about Beaubrun’s path is that she takes us with her on her tumble into another consciousness, and she is searingly honest, often at her own expense.

The apparent impenetrability of Vodou is waved aside by the amazingly simple explanation offered by one of Beaubrun’s many teachers: “the ordinary man is incapable of attending to Ginen (the Vodou way) because he squanders his energy in the bizango (material) world. That is why he lives in a state of confusion. It is thus important . . . to attend to both worlds at once. The moun Ginen (initiate) can do it because he has Je (supernatural clairvoyance).”

Beaubrun’s account of her journey to Ginen both complements and nuances the Vodou traditions opened for all in Vodou Songs. The two books mark the inauguration of a new era in Vodou scholarship, one in which authentic insider voices can provide entire perceptions of a previously much maligned and misinterpreted living tradition.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2015

Simon Lee is a London-born, Trinidad-based “Jewish Creole.” He writes frequently on Creole history, poetics, and culture.