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A Vodú Party for the Gods

By Grete Viddal, Cuba Haiti, Religion, Tales from the field 6 Comments »

I went up a mountain, near Santiago, to houngan Pablo’s party for the gods. He lives in a place called Pilon del Cauto, near the river Cauto, about two or three (depending on road conditions) hours from Santiago, accessible by jeep, truck, or legs.

Guests arrived, some carrying a borrowed mattress to spend the night…

Pablo has a tonnel or space for ceremonies and parties. He has rented a sound system, and folks dance. Also there is much buying of goats: goat prices are based on weight. At the designated space, there is a  “mangemort” or altar table for the dead and another table for the “mangebla” or “mesa blanca” (called a manje blan in Haiti), with cakes and treats for the “sweet” spirits.

The white goat for the “mesa blanca” ceremony is consecrated with perfume and herbs. Tato and Pablo supervise the consecration of the fowl. Tato sprinkles the birds with a mix or holy water, perfume, herbs…

Houngan Pablo Milanes, mounted by the spirit Gran Bwa, sacrifices the goat. His son, behind, helps hold the animal steady. Gran Bwa then blesses congregants, while he is sitting on the body of the goat. He then dances the merenge with one of his assistants… Finally the goat is butchered and the meat readied for a night time feast…

NOTE on the usage of the term VODÚ: In the Cuban context the correct spelling for this religious practice is “vodú.”  (The Dominican spelling is often Vudu, in scholarly books in English it is Vodou. In French is Vaudoux. When writing about folk religion in the U.S. South, scholars sometimes term it “hoodoo.” Voodoo is an outdated and pejorative way to refer to Haitian spirituality.

Haitian Heritage Festival in Primero de Enero (Ciego de Avila)

By Grete Viddal, Cuba Haiti, Tales from the field 2 Comments »

This festival took place last weekend (March 27-28, 2010). The following images document a “vodu” ceremony that was performed within the festival context. (Text and photographs by Grete Viddal)

Cuban houngan Tomas Pol was soon mounted by “Towo” the spirit of the bull. However, Towo receives the sacrifice of a pig. In Cuba it is illegal, and too costly, to kill a bull, as would be traditional in Haiti…

The drummers Leonardo “Lionel” Martinez and his son accompany the ceremony. They are from Caidije in Camaguey province. Lionel has been to Haiti three times!

Everyone present lights a candle which is left at the altar, along with rum, plantains, an egg, water, sweet bread, root vegetables…

Subsequently Towo rides the verraco or uncut male pig, which will be later killed and prepared under the supervision of Hatian-born Benecio (with the hat, bottom picture)

Cuba Haiti: Musical Dialogues (III). Bonito Patuá

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, By Grete Viddal, Cuba Haiti, Tales from the field 1 Comment »

Bonito Patuá is a folkloric ensemble devoted to the performance of Hatian traditional dances. The group was founded in 1960, it is currently based in Camagüey, and has twenty-five members. You can see a video recording of a street performance of theirs during last year’s Festival del Caribe, in Santiago, HERE. Grete Viddal photographed them last weekend (March 27-28, 2010) during the Haitian Heritage Festival held in the town of Primero de Enero, in Ciego de Avila province.

all pics © by Grete Viddal

Cuba Haiti: Musical Dialogues (II). Martha Jean-Claude

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Cuba Haiti, Cultural production, music No Comments »

Martha Jean-Claude was a Haitian singer who moved to Cuba in 1952, fleeing persecution from the Magloire government. She married a Cuban, journalist Victor Mirabal, had four children with him, and developed a career in the Havana of the 1950s, appearing in radio, television and nightclubs. She joined the Revolution and continued to perform her brand of political song. She often toured internationally, including to war-torn Angola, on behalf of the Revolution and along with other Cuban musicians, always speaking up against the Duvalier regime.  She finally returned to Haiti in 1986, after the fall of Duvalier, and died in 2001 at the age of 83.

While in Cuba, she starred in Humberto Solás’ 1974 film Simparele, a 30 minute documentary re-enactment of Haitian history- which  Solás described in an interview with Julienne Burton (currently at UC-Santa Cruz), as an experimental and “interpretive documentary about the history of the people’s struggle in Haiti.” A good review of the film was published in Jump Cut in its december 1978 issue.

(If somebody has a copy of it or knows how to get one, please send it my way)

Here is the first minute of the film, which I found on Youtube.

Over the years, she performed with many Cuban musicians, like singer Celia Cruz (before the Revolution) and pianist Guillermo Rubalcava,  and shared the stage with many more, often Nueva Trova musicians like Noel Nicola, Sara Gonzalez and Pedro Luis Ferrer. In Cuba, she recorded several LPs, including:

1956 “Canciones de Haiti” (Songs of Haiti), GEMA. Havana, Cuba.

1969 “Canto Popular de Haiti” (EGREM- re-released in Mexico under license by Discos Pentagrama).  *[click here to download it].

1971 “Yo soy la cancion de Haiti” (I am Haiti’s song)

1972 “Martha canta a los niños” (Martha sings to the children). EGREM.

1975 “Agoe”, EGREM/Areito. Havana, Cuba

1993 “Mujer de dos islas” (Woman of two islands). SIBONEY, SANTIAGO.

But Martha Jean-Claude was not only a singer, but an accomplished composer. One of her most important compositions was in the repertoire of the Orquesta Aragon: C’est la vie mon cher (click on the title to hear part of it).

Here she is in 1952 in a duette with Celia Cruz (audio only): “Choucoune” (Haitian merengue)

(Thanks to Radio Cuba Canta for this link)

Cuba Haiti: Musical Dialogues (The Creole Choir, and more)

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Cuba Haiti, music 1 Comment »

The Creole Choir of Cuba is based in Camaguey and made out of  ten musicians who, accompanied by light percussion, celebrate the history of Haitian descendants with a mix of songs in French, Creole and Spanish. Their first international CD was just released on Real World Records (a world music label based in Britain and owned by Peter  Gabriel). The choir was presented at the Edinburgh Festival last summer and received to great acclaim. A review in The Scotsman went as far as to compare them to the Soweto Gospel Choir for their “cathartical emotion, dynamics and sheer technical bravado.” Below see the video promo for the album:

To contrast this slick world music production with contemporary footage of Haitian merengue as played and danced in Camaguey, please visit  El Lugareño.


For a lot more on the musical relations between Haiti and Cuba, I recommend you listen to the extraordinary Afropop’s Hip Deep podcast THE FERTILE CRESCENT: HAITI, CUBA AND LOUISIANA, produced by Ned Sublette in 2005. Here’s the show’s description:

In 1809 the population of New Orleans doubled almost overnight because of French-speaking refugees from Cuba.  You read that right, French-speaking refugees from Cuba — part of a wave of music and culture that emigrated from east to west in the wake of the Haitian Revolution.  We’ll look at the distinct African roots of these three regions, and compare what their musics sound like today.  In this Hip Deep edition of  Afropop Worldwide, our colleague Ned Sublette, author of “Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drum to the Mambo,” will talk with Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of “Africans in Colonial Louisiana”. Produced by Ned Sublette.

CALENDAR: For more on the points of contact between Cuban and Haitian culture, you might want to attend the Bildner Center‘s ACROSS THE WINDWARD PASSAGE SYMPOSIUM, to be to be held on March 5th in New York City. The workshop features papers by NYU professors Ada Ferrer (“Cuban Slave Society in the Shadow of the Haitian Revolution”) and  Sibylle Fischer (“Slavery and the Discourse of Universal Rights in Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela), and Washington University Romance Literatures Department’s chair Elzbieta Sklodowska (“Haiti and Cuban Oriente: Contact Zones and Zones of Silence”). For more details, click HERE.

The wonderful blog The Public Archive (an academic blog about Haiti with a similar approach to ours) just included a post on Antonio Maceo’s trip to Haiti. LINK.

In Honor of the Living Gods of Haiti

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Cinema, Cuba Haiti, music, Religion No Comments »

Between 1945 and 1953, Maya Deren shot  many hours of footage of Voudou ceremonies. The result was a documentary film put together after her death. Although it lacks the experimentation that characterized her film work, Divine Horsemen. The Living Gods of Haiti has become an inescapable reference to all anthropologists investigating Caribbean and African religions. The entire film is on youtube in six part, but the quality is awful. A better quality copy can be watched HERE in its entirety and without cuts (for some reason it will not embed properly in this blog).

Here is a preview:

More recently, ethnomusicologist Lois Wilcken has spent her professional career documenting the music associated with Voudou, both in Haiti and New York, in ways that recall the work documented on this blog by scholars like Berta Jottar on the Cuban rumba. Wilcken has put together a marvelous website that constitutes a virtual journey through the religious music of Haiti and its diaspora. The website, with a wealth of audiovisual information and reference, is called Voudou Music of Haiti.

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