Vodou Child

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

Around 1:00 a.m. Chantal returns to the altar. Another spirit possesses her — it's Damballah, the snake god. At first she careens around the room as if drunk, out of control. Then she falls to the floor, writhing, belly down, contorting her body and rolling her eyes back into her skull. She hisses in time with Erol's chanting. After a few minutes, Chantal rolls onto her back and passes out. Erol covers her — tenderly.

When she comes to about a minute later, she gets up and groggily walks out of the room, as if rising after a deep sleep. When she returns a few moments later, she asks if anyone wants coffee. And if they do, would they like cream or sugar?

With the ceremony momentarily on hold, Erol steps outside. It's hot in the basement, and the fresh air, which smells like cut grass, energizes the houngan.


C. Stiles
C. Stiles

Details

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

In 1987 Erol's stepfather had some news: The spirits had decreed that Erol should become a priest. At first his parents were reluctant. It seemed the boy, age 16, was too young. But soon they relented, especially when others in Haiti began to witness Erol's gift of speaking with the spirits. He could slip into trances with ease and clearly heard their messages.

Indeed other houngans had spoken to Erol and all agreed his knowledge of vodou was well beyond his years, and he could handle the often physically demanding role of being dominated by the gods. "He could move in and out of the spiritual plane in a matter of seconds, in and out," recalls Max Beauvoir, one of Haiti's pre-eminent vodou priests and scholars.

Erol spent 45 days in prayer, and then his stepfather took him to a secret forest near Port-au-Prince. There his parents and other priests bathed him in herbs. He spent weeks studying the traditions of the religion, including the healing properties of prayer and herbs such as basil, lemongrass, and mint. He learned how to sing and chant the words that would summon the spirits. At age 17, he became a houngan.

Although Erol devoted most of his time to his faith — he was the president of a vodou youth group that defended the ancient rituals — he found time for music and dance. He and his mother loved to listen to jazz and disco records. Boney M.'s "Daddy Cool" single was the first record he bought. Erol also remembers seeing the video for Michael Jackson's 1982 hit "Thriller" on television and trying to imitate the singer's moves in his living room. To improve, he took dance lessons after school.

At age 19, Erol felt the stirrings of wanderlust. His country's relentless poverty was the biggest obstacle to his dream — to sing and dance professionally. "I had a vision," Erol says. "What I wanted to do, I wasn't going to in Haiti."

Erol had one option: go to Paris. It was the easiest path for middle-class Haitians with an artistic bent. Unlike his poorer brethren, Erol had been schooled in the French language — so there wouldn't be a language barrier. His family obtained a tourist visa for him and then scraped together cash for the plane ticket and some spending money.

Paris was an awakening. Within a few years, Erol had formed his own 13-member dance troupe, Compagnie Shango, named for a powerful saint. He choreographed the performances, which relied heavily on traditional African music and some of the steps he had used during vodou ceremonies. He also dabbled in acting, appearing in a 2002 movie called Royal Bonbon, directed by French director and screenwriter Charles Najman. It is a magical tale of the reincarnation of the first king of Haiti; it was also one of the first full-length feature films to be shot on the island.

Erol went home for the filming. Before shooting began on one scene, he performed a vodou ceremony at a lake, to ask the spirits permission to use the water. "The crew thought I was crazy," Erol recalls. The film later won France's Prix Jean Vigo, an important prize that recognizes young French filmmakers.

The 28-year-old Erol stayed in Paris for two years after that movie, but ambition — and a touch of homesickness — brought him to New York. He knew New York had a large Haitian ex-pat community, larger than Paris's. He wanted to be around his people, around vodou. The Haitians in Paris were older, upper class, less inclined to openly practice or talk about their vodou faith. In New York there were Haitians of all ages, and lots of them. Some estimates put the émigré population at 300,000, equal to the Haitian population in South Florida.

"I [had] to bring Haiti to America," he says. "I want[ed] to show the real face of Haiti, that Haiti is not just poverty and vodou dolls and magie noire."


It's 4:30 a.m., and Erol ties a red scarf on his head, a striking contrast to his all-white outfit and caramel-color skin. He is singing loudly, summoning Ogou, the warrior god who also represents politics and magic. It is believed he gave power to the slaves in Haiti when they rebelled against the French government, and bestowed power again when Aristide took over in 1994. Ogou likes weapons and chaos.

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