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Though a large percentage of Haitians, like Erol's family, practiced vodou in the Seventies and Eighties, it was officially discouraged by the government and the Catholic Church. The signs of vodou in Haiti were everywhere during Erol's boyhood: African drumming and vodou-tinged lyrics appeared in public festivals and ceremonies. Veves — traditional designs meant to evoke a spirit — were prominent in shop windows.
Erol attended Frère Justin L'Hérisson, a Catholic school named for the man who wrote the country's national anthem. But Erol's parents forbade him to talk about the vodou practiced at home. "I would have gotten kicked out had they known," he says. The school was filled with abuse, both physical and sexual, he contends. For middle-class Haitian families hoping for a better life for their children, there were no other options.
When he was about 11 years old, vodou collided with everyday life at a boy scout camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Though he had never learned to swim, the electric-blue water of the Caribbean tempted him. Four of his friends jumped into the water, splashing and laughing. Erol followed and soon began to struggle. He feared he would drown. Then he blacked out.
He awoke on the ground, surrounded by campers and a scout leader. The boys were laughing, saying he had a devil in his head. "I had been in a trance and was speaking to the spirits," Erol remembers. "I was very ashamed." The scout leader shushed the boys and told Erol he had just received his first message from the spirits. "It is nothing to be ashamed of," the leader told him. "You have a gift."
Chantal Louis has prepared her Hempstead home for the ceremony. Two altars for the spirits have been erected in the basement. There are gold and purple frosted cakes, candles of all colors, fried fish, and avocados the size of softballs. There are cigars to offer to a spirit named Legba, eggs for Damballah the serpent god, and a tool for Ogou, the all-powerful warrior spirit. It's a machete with a two-foot blade. If Ogou comes, he will certainly use the machete to get his point across.
Like Erol, Chantal grew up in Haiti. But unlike the houngan, she didn't discover her vodou roots until she immigrated to the United States in her twenties, had children, and began to search for a spiritual center. She hadn't been religious. "I needed something to hold onto," she says. She met Erol in New York at a friend's ceremony and felt a connection. Chantal rarely hosts ceremonies; this is only her second.
By 10:00 p.m., the small group is ready. There are six women in their forties, all dressed in white, including Florence Jean-Joseph, a dreadlocked paralegal and a vodou priestess herself. There's also Huguette Metelus, a large, classically beautiful woman who works at a hospital. Only one man other than Erol is here: 39-year-old Ernest Jourdain, a tall and muscular accountant from Fort Lauderdale. He's a friend of Erol's. Ernest is the only person not dressed in white; he's wearing a lime green Izod shirt and blue jeans.
Erol is tired because his plane from Miami was delayed. Dressed in a silky white shirt and white pants, he steadies himself and begins the liturgy. He closes his eyes and sings, his voice rising into a rhythmic chant. The sound is directed to the people in the room, but the lyrics are meant for the spirits.
His voice is strong and clear, aural roots stretching from the suburbs of New York to Little Haiti in Miami and back to Port-au-Prince and Africa. Within moments the room fills with sound. Huguette shakes a brightly painted gourd, and Florence sings. The other women clap and sway in time with Erol's voice. Ernest sits on a white plastic chair in the back of the room, following the music and praying softly to himself.
One by one, Erol and the others greet the spirits. Each supernatural being receives a similar ritual: a song, an offering (usually rum or some other liquid), a lit candle. Everyone kneels on the floor at least once. Occasionally Erol dances with one or two of the women — mostly with Florence, whom he calls his "spiritual sister." It's sensual, but not sexy. Hollywood's version of vodou is nothing like these rituals — no pentagrams, animal sacrifices, skeletons, or zombies in sight. There's actually a lot of laughter and easygoing banter during the ceremony; it's a loose atmosphere. People walk in and out, use the bathroom, and sip water throughout.
Chantal is the most moved by the ceremony. Around midnight she cries as she sings. Her tears and words turn to high-pitch babble — she is speaking in tongues. She faints into the arms of two women. Erol gently but quickly walks over to help ease her onto the floor and then covers her with a white sheet. Perfume is sprayed into the air, so the room now smells like roses, sweat, and fried fish. Chantal rises and staggers into a small room off the main basement area, where she flops down, exhausted, on a bed for 15 minutes.