Burning Man Opera friends and family!
After having received a number of requests to post stories about our Haitian journey, I (Twan) have decided to do it. I was reluctant at first because I didn't want a large discussion to take place about our experience of the secrets and mysteries of Voodoo per se, but only as a means to generate conversations about how the things we learned will be applied to the opera. I have had time to assimilate some of the things that we experienced, though assimilation in not yet complete...
Voodoo Terms and Definitions:
- Lwa: Voodoo spirit (of which there are hundreds)
- Lakou: Voodoo community or settlement
- Peristil: the temple/ceremony area of a lakou
- Hounfort: a small building which houses the alter in a voodoo community
- Houngan: Voodoo priest
- Manbo: Voodoo priestess
- Hounsi: Voodoo acolytes who assist the Houngan in the execution of a Vodou ceremony, singing songs and leading dances
- Ogenikon: Lead choirmaster, leads the hounsi in the songs
- Ason: Sacred rattle used by Houngans and Manbos to call the Lwas from the spirit world
- Guevo: A room in which initiates into the Vodou priesthood are sequestered
- Migon: An organic paste placed on head and wrapped during initiation
- Veve: Sacred symbols to the Lwas, drawn on the ground with cornmeal
Pepe was the first to go, arriving mid December, followed by me one week later, followed by Christopher and Andrea one week after that. Within hours of arriving in Port-au-Prince (which is an absolute no-rules madhouse), I hooked up with Pepe in the Caribbean coastal town of Jacmel. Even though we spent months researching Haiti and Voodoo prior to our departure, and despite the fact that we had compiled an extensive list of contacts, we rarely referred to our contact list at all due to the fact that Pepe had made connections of his own within the local population immediately upon his arrival. Pepe is a natural at this sort of thing.
Pepe befriended a woman named Chantal Alexis, who is a Manbo, and her brother Medin, who runs a brothel in one of Jacmel's incredibly decrepit, heart-breaking slums (mind-numbing poverty, and the Haitians make a lot of babies). Chantal turned out to be the perfect person to hook up with. She proved to be an invaluable resource throughout our visit. We are looking into the possibility of bringing her (and a young Houngan named Fritzner Georges. More on him later) to Burning Man to assist in the opera this year. It will be a challenge to get them here, but we will try...
Within hours of arriving in Haiti, I found myself with Pepe and Chantal, at Medin's brothel, which is set up nicely, despite its setting in one of the worst slums I have ever experienced. There were a few 'working girls' (which we did not indulge in!), lots of chicken and drink, especially beer and the ever present Barbancourt rum, and music. We ate, drank, joked, danced and generally had a good time. Haitians are always ready to laugh and enjoy themselves, despite their bleak realities.
Afterwards, the four of us made the trek on foot to Tout Koulèv, a Voodoo community outside of town. This journey took us thru the slum to the river, which we had to cross on foot, and into the jungle. It was a beautiful walk, with a full moon lighting our way.
Once we arrived at Tout Koulèv, we went to the local Houngan's lakou.The Houngan, Papa Jean-Claude, received us warmly, as Pepe had been hanging out there for the week prior to my arrival, so he was already known, liked, and accepted. We were accepted as guests of honor. I anticipated that I would feel a little out of place, but the wonderful people in this community made me feel right at home. Haitians are among the most kind, gentle, sweet, and humble people I've ever encountered.
We arrived at the perfect time, as Jean-Claude was in preparation for the evening's Voodoo ceremony. He took us by the hand and gave us an insider's view of how the preparations were done. We had come specifically to learn the inner workings and secrets of Voodoo, and here we were getting just that... right from the starting gate. Before departing for Haiti, we had been told by people who knew that it would be very difficult for outsiders like us to get to see a genuine voodoo ceremony, that outsiders were not usually welcome. We were told that, at best, we might see a fabricated ceremony designed for the touristic types. But they were dead wrong. This was the real deal. It doesn't get much more authentic than this. Read on...
Visited By Spirits - The Trance Ceremonies of Voudu
Once the ceremony began, I was immediately struck the the beauty of the songs, dance, and drumming. The sense of community was overwhelming. Seems to me that one of the most important aspects of Voodoo is that it is the glue that holds the community together. Everyone is connected. All are one. Kinda like Burning Man.
Never before have I witnessed a trance possession, but here in Tout Koulèv at this Voodoo ceremony, there were 5 or 6 possessions. An interesting thing happens within the community when a possession takes place. Everyone gets excited that the Lwa (spirit) has found the conditions satisfactory enough to visit the congregation. The spirit visits once it has mounted, or possessed, someone within the ceremony. It could be anyone.
First, the congregation sings the invocations songs, asking the desired spirits to come and visit. If the spirit finds the conditions acceptable, they mount someone. Once someone is mounted (possessed), the congregation, led by the Ogenikon and the hounsi, sing the greeting songs welcoming the spirit to the community.
At this particular ceremony, the first spirit to visit was Danbala, the snake spirit and his wife Aida Ouedo. The chosen people first blacked-out, laying lifelessly on the ground as the singing and drumming reached a peak. Once the possessed people came back into consciousness, they were no longer themselves, but rather the incarnation of the spirits who had possessed them. The spirits present themselves in a manner so that they are easily identifiable to the congregation: in this case, being snake gods, they wiggled around in the dirt on their bellies like a snake, letting everyone know for certain that Danbala and Aida had arrived. The Houngan then took the two mounted people into the hounfort where offerings of food and drink had been set up on the altar for the spirits to indulge in. Papa Jean-Claude took Pepe and I into the hounfort to watch the spirits feast on the food offerings there. Once satisfied, the spirits were then taken back into the peristil, where they interacted with the congregation, sharing food and drink with them, and exchanging secret handshakes.
At one point, Danbala came to me with a bottle of Barbancourt rum (a Lwa favorite) and popped it into my mouth. I took a swig, and then off he went to another person and repeated the action. A lot of rum is ingested within the community in this fashion. Even the little kids drink it. Later, Aida Ouedo came to me with an offering of a pear. As she held the pear, I took a bite, and off she went, feeding others in a similar fashion. It is a bond-building phenomenon. Throughout this ceremony Pepe snapped photos and recorded the music (permission was granted to do so). These captured moments will be very useful as we all begin to formulate this year's opera. Throughout the rest of the week, we went to many Voodoo ceremonies, saw many possessions, and and learned a thing or two about the structure of voodoo.
The Opportunity to Become a Voodoo Priest
A few days before Christopher and Andrea were to arrive, Pepe and I were presented with an interesting opportunity: Papa Jean-Claude, knowing our interest in learning the secrets and mysteries behind voodoo, and knowing that what we learned would be taught to and experienced by thousands of people via the Burning Man opera, made us an offer. He asked if we would be interested in taking a "seminaire" on voodoo, at his lakou under his guidance. We would live there at his compound in the hills above Jacmel for one week and learn much about the inner workings of Voodoo. This was exactly why we came to Haiti in the first place. How could we refuse such an offer?
For three days, we went over every detail of the particulars of our stay. We went over how our food would be taken care of, bathroom facilities (which are in short supply in Haiti), housing, you name it. We painstakingly went over every detail with a fine-toothed comb, until we reached an agreement to our mutual liking. It was decided that, once Christopher and Andrea showed up, we would move to the compound and begin our seminar.
All the food would be taken care of by the hounsi (they will prepare our food, clean up, etc), we would have a bathroom, and we will be living in a very small concrete shack near the peristil. It was perfect. We were excited...
Our Voodoo Initiation Begins - Kanzo Ceremony
Christopher and Andrea arrived on Tuesday January 5th, 1999 and on the 7th we went up to Papa Jean-Claude's lakou to begin our training. Once nightfall arrived, a large Voodoo ceremony was being prepared in our honor. The things that happened next, none of us could have foreseen...
The ceremony was unbelievable. Many, many people showed up, and the energy was hot, thick, and electric. After we were bathed 7 times, we became the center of attention, as not many white people (known as blancs) have had such an experience. We danced and drank and had a good time. Many possessions took place. The place was on fire (figuratively speaking). Apparently the spirits were very happy that we were there for this occasion since so many came down to visit the community. This was a great party.
Haitian Voodoo in many ways is just a great reason to get the whole community together for a fantastic party. As the ceremony raged on into the night, we were becoming tired, especially Christopher who was still jet-lagged and we wanted to retire to our prearranged little shack. But we kept being delayed by Papa Jean-Claude, who was busy officiating the ceremony.
Then a strange, and unforeseen thing happened. Just when we were at the ends of our rope, and really wanted to go to bed, Jean-Claude called the four of us to the center of the temple. The drums were raging, the spirits were dancing, the hounsi were singing. It was peaking.
The next thing I know, we're being blind-folded! All my paranoid fears came into play: "Oh, great...here comes the human sacrifice part of the ceremony". And, "Shit..! I knew it. They're gonna turn us into zombies and put us in slavery on some plantation deep in the hills". Of course, none of these fears were realized. But still, being blindfolded during a peaking voodoo ceremony in front of 150 Haitians was a bit unusual to say the least. Obviously, we would do anything for the Burning Man Opera...!
While the drums frenetically pounded, and the hounsi surrounded us singing their songs, they began to spin us around and around... as I was spun, I began to realize, a bit disoriented, that we were also gently being pushed along. The drums were sounding distant, even though the hounsi who were spinning and guiding us were still singing loudly, up close and personal as they moved us away from the ceremony. Thru the jungle we were taken, stumbling over the roots of trees, until finally we were brought to an enclosed area of some sort. The creaking door as it was pushed open by the singing women was kind of creepy, right out of a horror show.
At this point, none of us even knew if we were still together as a group, or if we had been separated. Once inside the building, the drumming outside was just a distant pounding, but the hounsi were still singing in time with the drums. We were forced to sit down on a bed of leaves. We were to learn later that they were sacred leaves. At this point we started calling out each others' names, just to be sure we were all present. Thankfully, we were.
Once in a sitting position, our blindfolds were removed, and we were facing an altar, lit by many candles, and populated by many voodoo brik-a-brac. The still singing women then had us lay down, all laying on our left sides. They blew out the candles, and still singing in time with the beating drums in the distance, they departed, leaving us in the darkness to get some sleep. But we did not sleep. The ceremony raged on outside for a few more hours. It was quite an experience...
The next morning, we woke up to a lovely day. The hounsi brought us some coffee, and we went outside... or at least we tried to... Once we stepped out into the sunlight, we were told that we could not leave our tiny 12'x12' room for 7 days and nights. Apparently, when Papa Jean-Claude invited us to do the "seminaire", Pepe and I thought he meant "seminar", such as a class or a course of learning. But what Jean-Claude meant was "seminary", such as a school that prepares students to be priests. This is how we found out that we were to be sequestered for the entire week, never allowed to leave our little cell.
In reality, what we had signed up for was an actual initiation to become voodoo priests, Houngans in our own right! We accepted this reality as a necessity to create the Burning Man Opera to its highest potential. It had to be done.
Blood Rituals and Other Fun and Games
Rather than go into all the things that befell us during our week in captivity, and in the interest of keeping this already lengthy post as short as possible, I will point out some of the highlights of the rituals of initiation we were subject to:
On Saturday, a young Houngan named Fritzner Georges came into our chamber, which is called a Guevo, (or Djevo) along with some hounsi to perform the first of many rituals on us. Once again we were blindfolded. We were given a cup with a lid on it in one hand and a candle in the other hand. As the hounsi incanted various songs, Fritzner went around to each one of us and cut snippets of our hair from four areas of our heads, then hair from each of our armpits, and then from our pubic hair. Once he reached for my pants, I was sure that I had seen the last of my penis! So much for paranoid thoughts! The hair was placed inside of our cups. Then he placed some sort of ugly brown gooey organic substance on top of our heads. This stuff is called Migon, and apparently its purpose is to enhance the memory. It is some sick looking stuff. Once the Migon was on our heads, the blindfolds were removed and wrapped tightly on our heads to keep the Migon in place. Once our heads were wrapped, he poured coffee on top of the wrapping. We asked how long we had to keep this here... and we were told until Wednsday! Yuk! The next day, Fritzner came in with a large bucket of fragrant water and soaked our heads in it to keep the goo nice and moist.
The Sacrificial Chicken Ritual
This next part is not for the squeamish...read on if you're not of weak stomach....
On Tuesday, our fifth day in captivity, Papa Jean-Claude, Fritzner and the hounsi came in, unannounced as usual. They had some live chickens with them. Fritzner drew a veve on the ground to honor Ogoun Feray, the warrior spirit. Then the hounsi began singing as Fritzner and Jean-Claude began reciting incantations. Holding the live chickens by their feet they began to stroke the chickens up and down our bodies, one at a time. The front of our bodies, our sides, faces, heads, our backs. One of the chickens took a shit on my back, and Fritzner rubbed it into my skin. I believe this is a good omen of some kind. That's what I want to believe anyway!
When Jean-Claude was performing this ritual on Andrea, he suddenly yelled out, threw the chickens to the ground and he staggered back, apparently receiving the spirit of Ogoun Feray into his body. He swiped at his face a few times, and when he had regained his composure, Fritzner handed him the chickens again, and he continued with the ritual, except he was no longer Papa Jean-Claude, but rather Ogoun himself, in the flesh.
Throughout this the hounsi never missed a beat, singing their songs and shaking their asons. Next, they took the chickens, and standing before each one of us, they plucked feathers from various parts of the chicken's bodies. They placed the feathers into our covered cups, which we were once again holding in our hands. After this, standing in front of each of us, and looking directly into our eyes, at close range, they bit off the combs of the chickens. Blood began to flow. They spit the pieces of combs into our cups. Next, and once again at close range and looking into our eyes, they pulled the tounges from the chickens mouths and bit them off, spitting the tounges into our cups. These cups are known as 'po tet' ('head pots').
With the blood from the chickens, they drew 7 crosses on our heads and bodies, the hounsi singing all the while in the background. Once this step in the ritual was complete, they held the fowl up to our bodies and broke their wings, so that we could feel the 'snap' against our skin. Next, they held them to our legs and broke the chickens legs.
After this, the chickens were held by their heads and spun round and around until they were decapitated, their bodies falling to the floor, blood spewing everywhere, as their lifeless bodies flapped around pointlessly, their heads still in the hands of Fritzner and Jean-Claude.
Then they left us. Just like that.
Within an hour, we were eating these sacrificial birds, by far the best meal we'd received while in captivity.
Receiving the Secret of Papa Loko
One last highlight: During our final night in captivity, there was a fantastic voodoo ceremony raging outside. We were not allowed to attend, as we were still sequestered, but we could hear everything, the music, the singing the crowds of people carrying-on. It was a very charged ceremony. We were told that we would be a part of the ceremony later in the evening, when we would receive the secret of Papa Loko, an important Voodoo lwa.
We sat around, listening to the wild ceremony happening outside. We even broke the rules, by taking a peek. There were a lot of people gathered for this ceremony. I was a little nervous, not knowing what fate would befall us.
Then at a little past midnight (an important time in Voodoo), the hounsi came in to get us, two at a time. Pepe and Andrea went first. They were each covered in a white sheet from head to toe. Wrapping their arms around the waist of an hounsi who was the guide, they were led outside, attended to by many hounsi, whose hands held the sheet in place as well as being additional guiding hands. Out they went, and into the ceremony.
Christopher and I anxiously wondered what was going on, and what we were in for. Five minutes later, Pepe and Andrea were brought back into our little room and uncovered. Pepe had an astonished/disgusted look on his face and he was rubbing at his hands, staring at them intensely. Andrea had a look of bewilderment on her face and was breathing heavily.
As the hounsi were now covering Christopher and I with the sheets, I asked Pepe and Andrea what happened. They said nothing. No response at all. Pepe was just looking at and rubbing his hands, seemingly oblivious to my question. I asked again. Nothing! Andrea just stood there panting, apparently unable to say anything either. Next thing I know, I am completely covered with a white sheet, blocking out all vision, and being led out the door to face whatever fate had in store for us. It was really a strange feeling.
I became very calm, relaxed. Peaceful. Is this what it's like for a lamb being led to the slaughter? Total surrender. As we walked toward the peristil, the ceremony raging full on, the music, drums and singing getting louder and louder... fantastic... fascinating. I could see nothing, only hear. As I entered the peristil, I could hear the congregation hooting and hollering, the drums beating their frantic rhythms. Suddenly, the sheet began to glow the yellow-orange of a nearby fire.
The hounsi who was leading me, Terez, my arms wrapped around her waist, began to stoop down, taking me down with her. She exposed my hands, bringing them out from under the sheet. Without warning, a strong pair of hands took one of my hands and held it near the fire. Something very hot was placed into my hand. The strong hand in charge closed my fist over this hot substance, and squeezed it tight. It wasn't painful, but the substance was hot. A few seconds more and my hand would have been burnt. But then my hand was opened and the substance was taken out of it.
Terez then stood up, and led me to another fire, and the ritual was repeated, this time with my other hand. Then I was led back to our little cell. A little while later, they came back and we did it again, this time they took our feet and held them in the fire for a moment. By far, one of the strangest things I've ever allowed myself to be subject to. Which is saying a lot! It was amazing. By going thru this Kanzo initiation ritual, we had received the secret of Papa Loko.
Anyhow, that's all I'm going to say about our mystical journey at this time. There are a great many details that I have intentionally left out. To comment on everything that happened would be to make this post ridiculously long. I fear that it already is too long. Not to mention that I am sworn to secrecy, not to divulge the underlying esoteric knowledge. Sure, I told you about a few of the things that happened, but I did not reveal the underlying reasons that these things happened. The secrets shall remain secret. I just wanted to satisfy the many people who were inquiring about our Voodoo adventure.
I can't wait to get to the real deal... the creation of this year's fantastic opera with all of you. That's what it's all about, and that's why we went on this fantastic journey in the first place! Glad to be back!