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Chantal Louis is a 42-year-old Haitian immigrant who lives in suburban Hempstead on Long Island. She's a mother of three and a computer technician who can flash a megawatt smile. She lives in a two-story white colonial home graced by dainty lace curtains in the windows and a white wicker chair on the front porch. The home, which is worth $420,000, sits on a tidy oak-tree-lined street.
Lately she has been a bit depressed. Her eldest daughter is heading off to college, and Chantal is wondering what her own future holds. Most women at her age and station in life would pop a Prozac or take a yoga class. Instead she turns to a vodou priest named Erol Josué.
One night in July, Erol travels from his home in Miami to New York, where he gathers about a half-dozen other vodou practitioners — including a paralegal, an accountant, and a hospital worker. All are well-heeled Haitian-Americans — the kind of people who might work next to you in an office or perhaps coach your kid in a baseball league. Their mission: Appeal to the spirits to solve Chantal's ennui.
For seven hours, beginning around 10:00 p.m., they speak in tongues, dance, spill high-octane rum onto a machete, light the blade on fire, and hold it aloft. The next day they bless a chicken, kill it, and eat the flesh as thanksgiving to the spirits.
Though vodou got its start in West Africa, then spread into the mountains of Haiti, and later to the slums of Miami and New York, it has increasingly made its way into well-appointed homes like Chantal's. And who better to bring it than Erol, a world traveler, choreographer, and artist who released his first CD of vodou-tinged global beat tunes this summer.
"Wherever I go, I go with Haiti, because my way of life is vodou, my music, my dance. I go with that because it is in my heart," he says. "My heart is Haiti. I live the Haitian life every day."
Erol Josué was conceived amid chaos in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The year was 1970, and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was about to take over the country from his dictator dad. By the time Erol was born October 13, his father had fled to South Florida, accused of trying to assassinate Duvalier's father, "Papa Doc," some years before.
His mother, Genia, had been born into a family of middle-class Haitians, which meant they had a reasonably safe place to live, regular electricity, and enough food to eat — unlike a majority of those who lived in the poorest city in the Western Hemisphere. She divorced soon after Erol was born, and two years later married an engineer named Eberle Lajoie. Erol would grow up thinking Lajoie was his father.
Erol's stepfather was the biggest influence in his life; in addition to working a day job, Lajoie was a well-known vodou priest. Genia and her mother were also priestesses. "When you come from a vodou family, you're a very different child," says Carol d'Lynch, a Miami priestess originally from Haiti. She knew Erol during his boyhood. "As a vodou child, you know your responsibility, you know what is important, you know the things coming in life."
For Haitians vodou is not just the stuff of dolls with pins stuck in the eyes or zombies wandering in a forest. The centuries-old religion has permeated Haiti for generations — it was carried by slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean beginning in the 1700s. On the island of Hispaniola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic, those transplanted Africans mingled with the Taino Indians, who were also persecuted by European occupiers. Vodou evolved from the three cultures. French laws prohibited its worship, so slaves pretended to take on Christian beliefs. As a result, many spirits, called loa in Kreyol, were assigned Catholic saints as their counterparts — which is why statues of the robed, pious-looking Europeans are sold in botanicas around the world. Vodou practitioners worship a creator and the spirits; the faith's emphasis is placed on achieving harmony with nature, community, and family.
Vodou played a huge role in Haiti's liberation from France. In 1751 a houngan named François Mackandal organized other slaves to violently raid sugar and coffee plantations. The French burned him at the stake. Another former slave and vodou practitioner — Toussaint L'Ouverture, who helped win Haiti's independence in 1801 — replaced him at the liberation movement's helm.
In the years that followed, vodou became a mystical, powerful tool for the government and a cultural touchstone for the masses. Haitian immigrants brought it with them to the United States. For the young Erol, vodou meant family, nature, and love. "It was the best thing in my life," he recalls. As a boy, during ceremonies, he would pluck sweet taffy from a ritual bowl carved out of a gourd. And he remembers the smell of the fresh leaves and fragrant herbs his grandmother would pick for her blessings and healings, and how she would bathe him in those herbed waters at the beginning of every new year for good luck.