The germ of an idea for our show on Vodou varies greatly from how our program on play originated. We receive thousands of e-mails from listeners who want to hear more on a topic they’re curious about. Many of these gentle recommendations we add to our supersecret *wink* “big list” of potential programs. Vodou was one of them.
About two years ago, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith wrote us a brief e-mail asking if we had produced shows on “African and African-derived traditional religions” and recommended several volumes that he’d edited on Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble, and Umbanda.
Our former associate producer Jessica Nordell called him asking for suggestions for people that he thought could speak about Vodou intimately. He was forthcoming and recommended many voices, including Claudine Michel. But we quickly realized that he was that voice — a Haitian aristocrat who was not only a scholar of the tradition but a practitioner who discovered Vodou in his early adulthood. We found his personal story about rediscovering his heritage and the spirit of the people of his country utterly captivating.
Once Krista interviewed him, we knew it was a show. Production of some shows are liberating when all the pieces fall into place. “Living Vodou” was one of them. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith sent us Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, which was a homerun for music elements. The compilation was appropriate, Mitch reminded me, because it piggybacked on his story about playing Haitian music on a radio station in Benin. It also captured the ears of our senior producer for its pure, percussive rhythms, whereas Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe’s beautiful melodies blended themes of rural life and Vodou. In the spirit of Vodou ceremonies, Mitch chose “Legba non baye-a” to usher in the program. Legba is the first lwa to be saluted at a ceremony and serves as a gatekeeper, a conduit to the spirit world.
Legba nan baye-a Legba nan baye-a Legba nan baye-a Se ou ki pote drapo Se ou k ap pare soley pou lwa-yo Legba is at the gate Legba is at the gate Legba is at the gate It is you who carreis the flag It is you who shields the spirits from the sun
My challenge was to find a photograph that would capture the vibrant culture and complex system of beliefs that Bellegarde-Smith described — as it is lived in the United States today. A few hours later, I was left hopeless thinking that I may not get an image that would do our show justice. Maya Deren’s book and film set me on the right course. I began searching Flickr and other sites for variant spellings of Haitian spirits and concepts — everything from Voodoo to Vodun, from Gede to Ghede, from lwa to loa, from veves to vévé. Then I discovered this image: The photo captures so much: the poto mitan, a painting of a Catholic saint, a fashionably dressed priest shooting vaporized rum from his mouth, a small boy in a humid basement, a lady in white garb, a festive atmosphere, movement. Here was a photographer who was personally invested in her subjects — at least my intuition said so — and not just documenting them. When I contacted Stephanie Keith for permission to use a few photographs, I asked her why she got started on this project — a Vodou priest at a Buddhist peace rally invited her to learn more about his religion at a “party.” That was enough for me. The result: “Vodou Brooklyn,” a narrated slide show of her images and story mixed in with songs from Angels in the Mirror. Several months later, Current TV contacted us after watching the video wondering if we did film projects. Unfortunately, we can’t do much right now. And, the Brooklyn Historical Society invited Stephanie to submit our documentary for the Brooklyn Arts & Film Festival. It’s exciting to see our material find paths into different communities, and we can only hope it furthers our public radio mission to “enrich the spirit and nourish the soul.” UPDATE 8.18.08: And, as unexpected bloggers talk about this show (e.g., The Wild Hunt), perhaps we’ll be part of a larger dialogue in niche communities we weren’t involved in before.