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Alan Lomax’s Haitian diary

From “The Breaking of the Cakes” (an epiphany ceremony). January, 1937
Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity

[The] use of a Christian date for a Vodou ceremony is typical of the whole Haitian religious complex here. For example, the official church lithographs of the saints form the principal wall decoration for every Vodou altar, and some fifty percent of the people know the Christian as well as the Vodou name for the saint. But a good half of the population, even here in Pont Beudet close to Port-au-Prince, the center of Haitian culture, and in daily contact with the literate staff of the Haitian Asylum for the Insane and with schools and a church nearby, know these pictures only as deities in the Vodou pantheon. St. Antoine is Papa Legba, god of the crossroads, he who opens the gate to let the other loa enter and to whom the first song of every bamboche or ceremony are usually addressed. He is master of all ⎯ the master of all the animals, chief of all the loa. St. Patrick is Papa Damballa, master of the snakes and of the rainbow. Mater Dolorosa is Maîtresse Erzulie, the rich and jealous goddess of love, for whom many men reserve their Tuesday’s and Thursday’s bed in return for the benefits believed to be received. And so it goes with most of the loa.

So far as I know, no friend of mine here has ever walked the four miles to mass in Croix des Bouquets, but I understand that all the initiates of the canzo ceremony are supposed to make a pilgrimage to all the principal shrines and chapels of the region. In other words, Catholicism is merely the official religion of Haiti, and its symbolism has merely been adapted to conform to the ideology of the various African cults that managed to survive in Haiti.

I should like to add at this point that what I have seen of Vodou in Haiti makes me a little impatient with such accounts as Seabrook’s and Craig’s. Strange and rather horrible things do happen here at times, but these things, when taken out of their context — of a simple country people amusing themselves and reverencing the powers that they believe they see walking the earth every day — form a garish and distorted picture so far from the truth that it would have been better had these men never written about Vodou at all. Beyond these general remarks, however, it is best for me to leave writing about Vodou to those who have seen more (because they have made Vodou their special interest) than I have.

George Narvil, organist and choirmaster from the church at Croix des Bouquets, a distinguished old fellow with a long white beard, comes walking from the hounfort (a little thatched house about ten yards away from the mambo’s rest-house) a little bell. He sounded the bell three times and then came and sat down with us and joined in the gossip and laughter under the tonnel. This was about one forty-five. Behind the house Theoline was squatting on a low stool while several disciples combed her hair and powdered her.

At two, Narvil sounded the bell three times again. This was to advertise to the whole world that the ceremony was about to begin. More and more people began to arrive, all in their best clothes, many with their town shoes and all shiny from scrubbing Madame Degras, a famous mambo from Port-au-Prince, appeared out of the house with her mother, who was even more distinguished in her time. The daughter was all of sixty-five. Lemon yellow and with long white hair and great intelligent eyes. The old mother was a soft, broken mound under a long white cotton dress who leaned on a thick brown coconut cane. We made friends, and Madame Degras combed my hair. I bought milk for her mother. At 2:15 the bell was rung three times again, and after a little we all wandered vaguely to the hounfort, where the recording machine had already been set up.

Related: Haiti’s Lost Music

Click play to listen to sample tracks from the Lomax archives.