Watch an audio slideshow of Erol Josue leading a Little Haiti Vodou ceremony.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Kreyol:
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 down. 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 5:00 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 Kreyol it means the rules, or protocol, of vodou.
At night he performed in clubs, meeting other artists and dancers and collaborating on eclectic projects. Through his shows — and the vodou ceremonies he led in Brooklyn — Erol introduced a new genre to the world music scene: vodou-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 Nineties groups such as RAM and Boukman Eksperyans had a strong reggae flavor with some vodou-inspired beats.
Erol, however, is one of the first to incorporate vodou lyrics with slicker, funkier rhythms — Kreyol 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.
In May 2007, Erol released Regleman on Mi5 Recordings, the world music division of EMI. It's a love letter to the vodou faith. The CD's first song, "Hounto Legba," reveals a conversation between the spirit of the drum and the god of wisdom, who opens the gates for all the spirits to enter the ceremony. The songs invoke the goddess of water, make reference to freed slaves, and refer to Erol's abuse at Catholic schoolteachers' hands. Traditional Afro-Haitian drumming is at the core of all of the disc's 13 songs, but each contains a different, funky gem — a violin here, a samba beat there.
Critics have loved it. One reviewer on poplife.com wrote, "The music on Regleman is so beautiful and the presentation so hip and nonchalantly pretty that it makes the zombie-slave blood-of-Satan notions of vodou look even more cartoonish than they already do."
The album is sold on Amazon.com and on iTunes, where one of the tracks is also featured on a world music compilation. In August the disc was highlighted on the "Global Hit" segment of BBC's The World radio program. Erol spoke about Haitians' relationship to music. "Music is our bible. For example, any situation in life has music. The music in Regleman is universal and I try to do a common language for people, but it's also personal. I can be inspired by that microphone and that situation and sing it."
Around the time the CD was released, Erol shifted his home, once again, to Miami. He says he missed the sun, the palm trees, and the texture of Little Haiti. Although he couch-surfs back and forth between Miami and New York, he considers Miami home base.
His nomadic life underscores his artistic personality. Erol is quirky, soft-spoken, and delicate in manner yet strong, with a dancer's body. He isn't punctual and, at times, is a bit dreamy. He laughs a lot — tiny dogs especially make him chuckle — and speaks French so fluently and beautifully that when he orders a bottle of wine in New York, a waitress is stunned by his pronunciation. "I don't think I've ever heard French spoken so well," she stammers. Erol giggles, partly because he predicted she wouldn't expect a black man to purr such fluent français.
He doesn't have a car — he doesn't know how to drive — and he is one of those people who knows how to live well, dress fabulously (in Dolce & Gabbana), and travel effortlessly, without being encumbered by things such as credit card bills and budgets. He pops up seemingly everywhere. Just a few weeks after making Miami his home, he appeared at a Broward County rally with a sign that read "Stop the injustice" to protest the detention of 101 Haitians who had washed ashore in South Florida.
Erol's cell phone rings constantly. A steady stream of artist friends want to get together, and Haitians call to consult on vodou matters. "I get a lot of calls in the morning from people who want their dreams interpreted," he says. People he mentors spiritually help him financially on occasion — but much of his work, such as the ceremony for Chantal in New York, is done pro bono.
Music is his moneymaker. He sells his CDs for $20 during his performances and receives royalties from online sales. He also sometimes performs at places like Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant in the Design District, for audiences that include well-dressed, upper-middle-class Haitian émigrés, many of whom would not normally admit publicly of their vodou roots. "Erol is like a bridge between the upper and lower class," says Florence Jean-Joseph. "I don't know if he's even aware of it."
Although he spiritually mentors dozens of people in New York, he is working with only a few here in South Florida. One of them is Paul Roesph, a 30-year-old white graphic designer from Fort Lauderdale. Erol helped him host a ceremony to invite spirits into his condo in July. Roesph had become intrigued with the vodou religion after reading about it, and was referred to Erol by a friend of a friend. "Erol stood in front of 15 other Haitians and said, that man — meaning me — is coming into our tradition," says Roesph. "I was the only white person in the room. He said to everyone: 'I want you to accept him. The loa are here with him.'
"Erol is so sincere. He knows that vodou is a religion for anybody."
It is 5:00 a.m. in Chantal's Long Island basement, and Ogou is inside Erol. He lights a cigar and shakes everyone's hand. Unlike Chantal, who has been possessed by an obviously angry Ogou, Erol has been seized with the spirit of the dealmaker, the politician, the organizer. His face is confident, masculine, hard — so different from the tender, almost maternal look he had when helping Chantal a few hours earlier. He taps cigar ashes in almost everyone's hands — not Chantal's, because she is still screaming and waving the machete — and nods in approval. It is an odd, yet comforting, blessing amid the chaos.
Then he slips out of the spell.
He gulps a mouthful of rum and blows it around the room in a large, misty spray. He walks over to Chantal, swigs some rum, and sprays it on her. She is holding the machete in front of her, its blade inches from her face. Without a word, Erol calmly takes the machete from her hand and passes it to a woman standing nearby. He embraces Chantal and she, too, slips out of the trance. The room is quiet.
There is more singing, in soft voices now, and a few candles are lit. The ceremony is over. Erol is physically drained. The spirits have come and gone.
It is 5:30 a.m. Friday. The oak-tree-lined street in Hempstead is beginning to stir. Lights illuminate windows, and people in suits walk to their cars to begin their commutes to work.
Erol and the others from the basement emerge and stand on the lawn. Erol jokes and chats softly with Florence, while Huguette and the other women shake the fabric of their skirts and cool off in the morning air. Everyone is still dressed in their white ceremonial clothes, and they glow like ghosts in the predawn half-darkness. They discuss plans to continue the vodou rituals at Chantal's house later that evening; the chicken sacrifice needs to be taken care of.
Erol is moving slowly, his eyes heavy with exhaustion. He has to get back to the city, to his sister's apartment. He wants to sleep. He's not sure what time the ceremony will begin later that night, but it doesn't really matter. Vodou, he says, has no time.
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