by Eric Barstow

Our first night in Gonayev was preceded by a four-hour long drive from Port-Au-Prince where I was crammed into the back of an SUV with all the bulging equipment poking me in every which way imaginable. The road was full of bumps, holes, and a general unevenness which made me think the shocks must have been inoperable during that ride there. It was probably an unwise decision to decide to go to a party after all that, knowing we had to wake up early the next day to starting our documentation of the Gede holiday being celebrated throughout the city. Settling down and getting some much needed sleep for our tired bodies and weary souls would have been the sensible thing to do.

But I find those in academia are rarely imbued with a strong common sense in these practical situations.

Hence, I decided to go to a Gede bal, at the invitation of Prof. Ben Hebblethwaite, in order get a flavor for the place and its people. We found out about the “fèt” (Creole for party) upon arriving to the hotel. The two of us went with Madame Alisma (the wife of our guide Oungan Michelet) and a few others from the hotel, armed with cameras in hand.

I had expected to walk into something small; a local celebration of modest proportions. I was delighted to see just how many people were in attendance for this gathering. I was reminded by my companions that this was not a formal spiritual ceremony, where specific duties were performed and offices within the recognized religious hierarchy. It was more an infusion of secular Haitian music with elements of vodou tradition. There were groups of dancers who moved sensually across the stage to the rich songs sung to the pounding beat of the drum. There were dance competitions between men competing with one another to see who could dance most suggestively. Singing, dancing, a bar with plenty of libations for the patrons, and the ever-looming expectation of body possessions taking place at any time made for a lively atmosphere, to say the least.

Possessions by the lwa are typical of religious ceremonies, which are more formal than the ball. But they occurred nonetheless: the possessed careened into the audience, seemingly unaware of their own actions. Many of the possessed were women who fell, rolling, and then thrusting on the floor. It was at this point that I turned to my partner in crime, Mr. Hebblethwaite for an explanation. He assured me that these practices were typical wherever the Gede appear, as they are the spirits who rule over two of the greatest inevitabilities of life: sex and death.

The performances were breathtaking and the energy of the place was unrivaled by any rock concert I have attended. We left the scene by about 3am, just when the festivities were going into high gear. It’s typical for these celebrations to last into the early hours when the sun peers over the horizon.

The dance troupe featured in the clip above opened their act with the traditional cracking of the whip on-stage. Later, they incorporated two torches into the dancing, which were then passed to the lead dancer, a man wearing red pants, who spit alcohol from his mouth to spew fireballs into the air. After this was done, there is a notable shift in the audience’s demeanor as they become more excited, energized, and enthralled by the spectacle. The cracking whip and the introduction of fire are both demonstrative of the Petwo spirits. Within the vast pantheon of vodou lwa there is a distinction drawn between the differing nanchon, or nations, of spirits. One of the most widely know nanchon, the Petwo, are known to be hot spirits, having been birthed from the slavery and subsequent revolution on the island of Saint Domingue. The whip lashing across the slaves’ back, the fire of the canons being shot as the rebellion went into full swing, gave form to these lwa of the Petwo nation. These elements are used, as they were at the ball, to attract these spirits to visit the those assembled in their honor.

Watching the performance, I was left to wonder why Gede, the lwa of death,  feature so prominent in the Vodou canon. I was reminded of what Karen McCarthy Brown wrote in her seminal book, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn:

“The Vodou spirits represent the powers at work in and on human life. The wholeness of the spirits – their ability to contain conflicting emotions and to model opposing ways of being in the world – gives Vodou its integrity as a religion.”
-Mama Lola, p.98

It a continuous road I am on to better understand all that vodou has to offer.