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Date: Thu, 27 Aug 98 11:53:56 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Haiti Briefing No. 29 August 1998
Article: 42007
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.18366.19980913181503@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** reg.carib: 214.0 **/
** Topic: Haiti Briefing No. 29 August 1998 **
** Written 4:12 AM Aug 21, 1998 by gn:haitisupport in cdp:reg.carib **
Haiti Support Group Briefing Number 29 August 1998

Nothing to lose but your chains, white slaves

Haiti Briefing extract, 27 August 1998

Following the two Vodou Nation performances of houngan Edgar Jean-Louis, and Boukman Eksperyans in London and Liverpool in May, Phillip Wearne reviews the UK press coverage.

First the controversy, then the promotion, finally some analysis. Press coverage of the Vodou Nation event - the first Vodou ceremony staged in Britain in London and Liverpool last May, performance Vodou as The Independent dubbed it - was as mixed a bag as the lwa invoked at the ceremony. But it was a full bag - further testimony, as if it was needed, of the enduring fascination Vodou holds for westerners.

That fascination is of course based on all the old stereotypes - devil worship, the occult, the Baron Samedi/Papa Doc image of films like Live and Let Die. Vodou Night Causes Uproar proclaimed The Journal in two-inch high headlines on its 24 April front page, just one of seven articles that wheeled out the usual church suspects to condemn the event. One cleric labelled it an ungodly practice; another added authoritatively that he knew it involved people becoming possessed by evil spirits; a third opined that those attending might suffer from demonic oppression. The dog biscuit must however go to Mark Stuge of the African-Caribbean Evangelical Alliance. He was quoted in the New Nation (4 May) as being worried that anyone attending may return to church acting like a snake or roaring like a lion.

How this motley crew of clerics derived such deep-seated knowledge about something they had clearly never sampled remained unexplained. Perhaps more urgent was what right they had to attack a religion that in its belief in transmeditative states, possession and transcendency of death, mirrors their own - what, after all, is the resurrection, transubstantiation or speaking in tongues? Cultural imperialism is at its worst when religious discourse strays into ethnic comparisons. Indigenous peoples, tribes or ethnic minorities have magic, ritual, superstitions, all, in Haiti's case, wrapped up in Vodou. Civilised westerners and the missionaries they dispatch on the other hand have religion, the Holy Ghost, and the body and blood of Christ. Belief that you have the real thing and are keeping the phoney out is of course an essential ingredient of religious bigotry.

New Nation at least had the sense to get a debate going, giving Leah Gordon 200 words to put all the rubbish into some sort of historical context. Vodou she explained was the religion of the slaves, used as a means of bringing together people of different tribal origins. As such it played a major role in the revolution that made Haiti the first independent black nation and in keeping the white man out after 1804. They (Haitians) know it seems sinister and scary to outsiders and as they feared reoccupation by Europeans, they have played up to the image. Go along to event, Ms Gordon urged, people had nothing to lose except their own prejudices.

It was left to Time Out in a preview headlined Fear of Music to get under the skin of this prejudice. Reciting the importance of Vodou in Haitian history, the listings magazine drew a salutary conclusion. So here we have Vodou as an empowering force exclusively understood by black people - and you wonder why it gets a bad press in the West? The Holy Willies were just like the slave-owners who outlawed traditional African religions. And look where that got them, one ight add. As dead as Vodou is alive.

Perhaps embarrassed by their ignorance, critics tried a new tack quickly picked up by the press. Vodou means animal sacrifices, they mused. Surely that was illegal? No retorted Como No, the company promoting the events. These were vegetarian, sacrifice free ceremonies. Julia Llewellyn Smith in The Sunday Telegraph recorded the disappointment of some of the audience at all this. Is that all? asked one woman. I thought I was going to see a goat sacrificed.

The Sunday Telegraph's was one of a number of long balanced features. Llewellyn Smith mentioned the near hysteria that had greeted the event in passing then went on to dispel the myth by spending a day with Vodou priest Edgar Jean-Louis and his team as they discovered the delights of Hackney's Ridley Road market. Other papers, such as The Times and The Independent had sent reporters out to Haiti before the event, spawning detailed profiles of the Haitian dimension of Vodou. It was The Independent that pursued one of the most fascinating lines, asking what the visit to Britain meant. Since being recognised as an official religion in 1987, Vodou cultural acceptance has never been higher, abroad as well as at home. But could real Vodou travel and, as performance art, could it ever be the real thing, The Independent's Philip Sweeney asked.

The Guardian built on this theme and linked it with the tenet of the short promotional pieces that appeared in many of the listings/club magazines. These saw it all as something different, a cultural, educational event with religious overtones. We've had jungle and trance. Could Voodoo be the next sensation? asked Matthew Kershaw in The Guardian. If the search for the new is all in clubland - Bagley's Studios, the London venue has held fetish parties, transvestite gatherings, even happy hardcore nights, noted The Big Issue - the answer seems to be yes. In the July issue of The Wire Mike Shawcross reported that as the ceremonial pulse ripples across the different beats of three drums...I feel the hair rising on the back of my neck.