Voodoo Man

A voodoo ceremony in the 'burbs? Who'da thunk it?

In front of the altar, Huguette sits on the floor, her arms floppy and her legs stretched out in front like a Raggedy Ann doll. Her satiny skirt billows around her ample hips, and a white scarf wraps around her head. Her face is soaked with sweat. Eyes half-closed, she's in a trance. She holds an avocado in her hands. She takes a giant, sloppy bite of the fruit, skin and all.

Chantal, her eyes round and unfocused, slowly steps toward the altar. She lifts the machete from the offering table. Erol removes the red scarf from his head and ties it around the knife's handle. He sways and sings, his voice rising above the low hum of the others, who are having their own private conversations with the spirit. Erol summons Ogou in Creole:

Ogou fe

Erol Josué learned traditional voodoo dances and songs in his native Haiti.
C. STiles
Erol Josué learned traditional voodoo dances and songs in his native Haiti.
During the ceremony in New York, homeowner Chantal Louis was possessed by the spirits. Erol considers himself a bridge between the physical world and the spirit realm.
Jake Price
During the ceremony in New York, homeowner Chantal Louis was possessed by the spirits. Erol considers himself a bridge between the physical world and the spirit realm.


Watch an audio slideshow of Erol Josue leading a Little Haiti Vodou ceremony.

Se neg Jakomel

Ki danse anba tonel male li

Bon tan se li

Move tan se li.

(Ogou, the iron man/Is from Jacmel/Is always dancing even when stricken with misfortune/He is always present, in good times/And in bad times.)

Erol finishes the song, and Chantal steps to the altar. Still clutching the machete in one hand, she grabs a bottle of Barbancourt rum with the other, pours half of it over her head, and then carefully kneels. Setting the machete atop two rocks on the floor, she pours the rum on the two-inch-wide blade and reaches toward the altar for a pack of matches. Chantal strikes one and ignites the machete; a soft blue flame flickers. She begins to chant. Her words get louder as she jumps up and tries to stamp out the flame with her bare feet.

In one motion, Chantal grabs the machete by the handle and brandishes it above her head. She screams, angry, her eyes wide and clear.

Chantal's 18-year-old daughter, a slip of a girl with her mother's wide smile, appears at the doorway to watch. She has been sitting in front of the wide-screen TV set upstairs in the family room but heard the noise and wandered downstairs. Dressed like a typical teenager — she's in a pink Baby Phat tank top and tiny shorts — the girl looks like a time traveler, strangely modern compared to the women in long, flowing skirts. Chantal screams loudly, and the room suddenly feels uncomfortably small and crowded. The other five women stand before the altar, swaying in unison and singing. They pay no attention to Chantal or the machete she's clutching with both hands.

Then the women push the teen forward, in front of her mother. Chantal gently touches the girl's shoulders with the blade as if knighting her and then looks deep into her eyes while chanting.

By this time, it's almost 5 a.m. Ogou has also possessed Erol.

If Erol danced in Paris, he sang in New York. In 2004, he began working on a CD, which would be called Regleman. In Creole, it means the rules, or protocol, of voodoo.

At night, he performed in clubs, meeting other artists and dancers and collaborating on eclectic projects. Through his shows — and the voodoo ceremonies he led in Brooklyn — Erol introduced a new genre to the world music scene: voodoo-roots-rock-electronica-jazz. He played in a Manhattan club called SOB, in Boston at a place called Johnny D's, and at Yale University for the Frederick Douglass Book Prize dinner, where a friend named Laurent Dubois received the honor for his writings about Haiti.

Erol's work was a far cry from the U.S. music industry's version of Haitian music — bubbly compas tunes, a few balladeers, and rapper Wyclef Jean. The island nation's melodies haven't enjoyed the popularity of those of Afro-Cuban, salsa, or reggae. Haitian musicians who have succeeded incorporated other styles: Popular bands like Top Vice and Karess infused rock and jazz, while 1990s groups such as RAM and Boukman Eksperyans had a strong reggae flavor with some voodoo-inspired beats.

Erol, however, is one of the first to incorporate voodoo lyrics with slicker, funkier rhythms — Creole lyrics set to trance. His music sounds more modern yet earthier than most of the canned drum-machine-laced tunes coming from Haiti.

"When I heard him, I was just amazed," says Valerie Jeanty, a Haitian immigrant living in New York who produces and performs what she calls "Afro-electronica" music. "I had goose bumps."

Adds Whitney Hunter, a New York choreographer and dancer: "His performances are really transcending. I can see a direct parallel of how he is as a spiritual leader and how he is as a secular performer, singing a song. He has a connection to the Earth. You sense that he's really there, at that moment."

Erol spent the next two years living in Brooklyn with his older sister, Emelyne, and traveling the Northeast. He worked with the Interfaith Center in New York (a group devoted to religious tolerance and education) as a mediator for Haitian immigrants who were in court. He also did consulting at the Boston University Medical Center, where he taught med students about his culture's traditional faith healing. In 2004, the Boston Globe wrote about Erol's folk medicine: In Haiti, he explained, people ingest black-eyed peas to cure infections and mint leaves for stomach problems; he also showed how to use a wicker-and-wood chair to sap the power from a negative spirit.

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