I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In 1995 a friend told me I could earn $300 by allowing a Haitian folkloric troupe to shoot a video in my loft on Kenmare Street, in downtown New York. Damas “Fanfan” Louis, the leader of the troupe, showed up to discuss the matter. He kept staring intently at one of the paintings in my studio, of some trees with language and symbols floating among the trees. Finally he pointed at it and said, “That’s me.” I replied, “What do you mean, that’s you?” He said, “That’s me, that’s Minokan.” “What’s Minokan?” I asked. “That means the whole world, you’re painting the whole world!” Needless to say we’ve been friends ever since. Six months later Fanfan invited me to a Vodou ceremony in Brooklyn, and now I, like Fanfan, am houngan asogwe , high priest of Vodou.
Fanfan and I have collaborated in an attempt to bring Haiti’s vibrant and beautiful artistic culture to a wider audience–I as a visual artist and Fanfan as a master drummer. He has traveled the country teaching the vast repertoire of Haiti’s traditional music, and I have addedvèvès to my already richly hybrid artwork. Together we have compiled hundreds of hours of video tracing the traditional reglamon of Vodou and are attempting to raise money to put these in a form that can be distributed to educators worldwide. We have worked together to create Minokan Cultural Center, in Haiti, for dance, drums and the arts of Vodou–Fanfan as founding father and I as one of its original members. We travel to Haiti frequently but met for this interview at my apartment.
Michael Zwack You started playing drums when you were nine years old, that’s correct?
Fanfan Louis Correct.
MZ And you’re now 38. So that’s 29 years you’ve been playing drums. Do you remember when you first picked up the drum? What got you interested?
FL I was born a drummer. I really can’t remember the first day. I saw the drum, I started playing the drum. I grew up in a peristyle [Vodou temple] where I always saw ceremonies, listened to the drum, and I started to imitate what I was seeing, and to make drums. As a child, I played drum on a plastic gallon bucket. Then I made a drum with mud and fabric; I put water on top of it, and it sounded just like a drum.
MZ You’re a master drummer.
FL That’s what people say.
MZ What exactly is a master drummer?
FL To be a master drummer you have to know all the rhythms. You have to know all the parts, the boulah, segon and manman, and where the bell and the bass fit. And even if you don’t make the drum yourself, you have to know how to fix it. Experience is very important: how many people you’ve played with, how many groups, all these things. How you are on stage, in the classroom, in the university, anywhere. That’s all a part of becoming a master drummer.
MZ You’re a houngan asogwe, a high priest of Vodou, the national religion of your country. What’s the relationship of the drum to Vodou? What’s its purpose?
FL That’s a good question. In a ceremony, in any ritual ceremony, first you salute the drum, then you salute the spirits with the drum. It is the drum that calls the lwa, the spirits; it is the drum that entertains everybody in the ceremony. It is a very sacred instrument.
MZ There are some drummers who are called hountogi. What’s the difference between a regular drummer and the hountogi?
FL To become a hountogi, you have to be initiated to play the drum. During the initiation the passage that you receive makes the relationship with the lwa very close. For example, there is a different sound used to call each lwa. The hountogi know that to call a particular spirit, you have to play a particular rhythm, this variation or that variation, to make the spirit manifest. Most houngan have a personal drummer, hounto. That drummer is the only one who can play for the lwa, to call them to come.
MZ So in that way the hounto is the master drummer of the ceremony.
FL Yeah, kind of. In that ceremony that person is the master of the drum.
MZ How many rhythms are there?
FL In the folklore we have at least 33 traditional rhythms, plus other adapted rhythms. Each rhythm has more than a hundred different variations. It depends on the choreography, on the ceremony, on which spirit you are calling. Let’s take, for instance, Yanvalu. Yanvalu is a rhythm that has a lot of variations. If you are following a dancer in a folkloric troupe or in a ceremony, each song they sing can be a Yanvalu song, but it has a different variation that goes with that song.
MZ Can you mention some of the major rhythms that are used?
FL In the Haitian tradition you have the rada, congo and petro. You have Yanvalu, Mahi, Zepaule, Parigól, Mahi Frant, Mahi Siyé, Mahi Deté, Mahi de Real. You have Dahomey; Dahomey is now what they call Benin. And in the congo family, you have Congo Lafleur, Congo Payet, Congo Frant, Ibo, Affranchi, all from the congo tribe.
MZ A master drummer has the knowledge of those rhythms; hence the term master drummer.
FL Yeah, that’s for sure. In the Théâtre National D’Haiti, the way we did the auditions was to put you on the first drum with two master drummers. Then we change you to the second drum, and on to the third drum. You play different rhythms. If you know all the accompaniments, that means you pass the test, you can join the company. But if you cannot play the first, the second, the third, the bass, and the bell part, you cannot be in the company.
MZ You told me that in your life, your drum has given you everything.
MZ Can you explain that to me?
FL That’s a long story. From the time I was born, when I found out my grandfather was a Vodou priest, that’s how I became a drummer. And everything I really have done in my life since has been the drum. In Haiti, I used to play with a lot of folkloric troupes. I’ve performed at all the big hotels. I’ve performed at the big nightclubs, at all the big festivals. I’ve performed at the White House. I met a lot of presidents in my life, the president of South Africa, the president of Benin; I met the presidents of Haiti. I met Baby Doc and his wife. I met Aristide. I performed for President Clinton. Because of my drum, I have traveled all over the United States.
MZ How did you get to the United States?
FL My drum brought me to the United Sates and with my drum I have now visited 38 states, and I don’t know how many cities.
MZ Most recently, you were at the Democratic National Convention.
FL I was there, I performed three times, with three different groups.
MZ You’ve expanded your knowledge of the drums to go further than just the Haitian rhythms. You also play the Latin rhythms and the djembe.
FL When I first came to the United States, I was at the Katherine Dunham Institute in East Saint Louis. I had to learn how to play the bata drum from Cuba; I learned the saba drum from Senegal. I learned the djembe from West Africa. I have a lot of African friends, and I always play with them, they always teach me different parts of the African rhythm.
MZ Explain to me your relationship with Katherine Dunham, how that started.
FL I was in Haiti when [the acclaimed dancer] Lavinia Williams came back to Haiti. She left Haiti for a while because of the—
MZ Unrest in the country.
FL All the politics. And when Jean Claude Duvalier, Baby Doc, got married, his wife, Michèle, sent for Lavinia Williams to come back to Haiti. At that time, I was really young, like 15 years old, and I was in the National School of Arts. When Lavinia Williams came back to Haiti, I was the one, my friend Pierre Richard and I, to bring her onstage. We two little boys playing drums brought her onstage. She came with a master drummer, Muschamp. I think his grandfather was a king in Senegal.
Muschamp really appreciated seeing two little boys play. He told me that he lived in East Saint Louis, and he told me about the Katherine Dunham Institute. And I said “Oh, wow! I would love to go there. How can I go there?” He gave me a book. And in the book there was a picture of him sitting in his car. And the book said Talking Drum. In Creole, it’s tambou pale, the drum talks. And I thought, I would like to be in his position. Because a car was a big thing; I never saw a drummer in my whole life driving a car before.
MZ A teenager’s dream.
FL When I first came to the United States, it was 1987. I started in Disney World. After two weeks, we went to East Saint Louis to Webster University and the next day they took us to the Katherine Dunham Museum. And I met Muschamp again, and this time he told me, “You can come join us.” And that day I sat in on a class with him, and we played together. After that tour finished, I decided to stay in the United States. I spent six months in Saint Louis playing at the Katherine Dunham Institute. Miss Dunham was very nice to me, she opened the door for me. She was very happy that I joined the company.
MZ She helped you get your visa, didn’t she?
FL Yeah. I was working for the Théâtre National. Hervé Denis was the director. When I came back to Haiti, either they had fired him or he had left the job. Jean Coulange was the new director, and they gave me my layoff letter. That’s when I came back to the United States. I hung around for a couple of months in East Saint Louis, and then I moved to Milwaukee. I started playing with a group called Koti Dance Company, an African dance company.
MZ That’s the beginning. And now last summer you were an artist in residence at Jacob’s Pillow, and you’ve played at the Olympics! It seems like for the last year you’ve been on tour all over the place. Since I’ve known you, you’ve had a dream for Haiti: to start a cultural center for dance, drums, and the arts of Vodou. I know you built a peristyle in La Plaine by employing people to make drapo, sequined flags, and then selling them here in order to subsidize the construction. Can you tell me more about this dream you have?
FL Here’s the dream, and I hope it comes true. My dream is to make a cultural center. But the plan is to have a factory where people can practice and learn the arts of Vodou, to have a school where people can learn drums and the traditional songs. And to have a hotel where any student can stay and not have to worry about paying. They will find everything they want in the one place. I want to be able to take them to different places in Haiti, the most important places, like Sau D’Eau, Saint Jacque, Jacmel. To the carnival. All those things, that’s a dream. But I try my best.
In 1999, when I went to Haiti, I started a new business, an export business. I see what they need in the country. I started with Duracell batteries, then I bring watches, I bring jeans, sneakers, shoes, clothes for people. I sell them inexpensively. And I start the business like that. So before I come back to the United States, I buy the decorated bottles, I buy the flags to sell them here. All of this money I spent on the temple. This temple cost me almost 50,000 American dollars, which is equal to 200,000 Haitian dollars. Later on I found out that the land that I built the temple on is not legal land. It belongs to—
MZ To the government.
FL To the government. And I decide it’s not a good thing to continue to spend money on this temple. So now the plan is to leave it to my wife’s family. I will start a new temple. I already have the land. This temple we’re going to call Minokan Vodou Cultural Center.
MZ Can you explain that word, minokan?
FL Minokan means all nations. Minokan is indefinite. When I see minokan, I see yellow, white, black, all the colors, all the nations in the Vodou.
MZ In Vodou, what does minokan mean?
FL Minokan means all the spirits.
MZ You are the founder of Societé Minokan Vodou. What is a Vodou societé?
FL First let me explain how I started Minokan. When I first came to New York I didn’t have my residence. I was illegal in this country. But I have a profession, I can find a job playing. I am working because I have my drum. It was later that I got my residence, so I was not illegal in this country anymore. But before, it was hard for me. I started playing in Vodou ceremonies. Everybody loved me, everybody loved the way I play, everybody loved my comportment. Sometimes five, six people would call me for the same day, and I said to myself, I have a lot of students, I have a lot of people I know who can play drums, I’m going to make a drum company. So I sent a group here, I sent a group there, I sent good drummers everywhere. I went to all the ceremonies. I’d spend one hour here, one hour there, one hour here, and one hour there. At the last place I would stay until six in the morning.
MZ So you played at all of them?
FL I played in all of the ceremonies. I made it show biz and went to all of the ceremonies.
MZ But what is a Societé Vodou?
FL A Societé Vodou is a group of initiated members who follow a traditional form of Vodou for their house. They participate in everything in the peristyle. They do everything for the ceremony. It is a community organization for all the members, like a church.
MZ Does someone have to be initiated to Vodou to be part of the Societé Vodou?
FL No, not really. It depends. Our society is a rada society. It is a tradition that you be initiated to join this society. There are societies you don’t have to initiate in Vodou to join, like the bizango society.
MZ All the members of a Minokan society are initiated?
MZ When ceremonies are performed, it takes a great number of people to do that. A drum batterie for a ceremony consists of how many drummers?
FL For the Vodou ceremony there are three drummers—boulah, segon, and manman—and one bell. Today, though, it’s different, they add so many things. You can go to a ceremony and see six, seven, eight drummers playing at the same time.
MZ But primarily, it is those three drums that are carrying the rhythm?
FL Traditionally, yes.
MZ In the ’50s, there was a very important houngan in Bel Air Port-au-Prince, André Backsia. There is a corridor there named after him, Corridor Backsia. He’s mentioned in Alfred Metraux’s book Voodoo in Haiti. You’re his grandson, right?
MZ Can you tell me a little bit about him?
FL André Backsia is one of the famous priests in Haiti. He came from a large family, a middle-class family. He was in the seminary to become a Catholic priest. After his third year there he became possessed when they took him inside the cathedral. He was possessed by a gedecalled Captain.
MZ Captain Sinmbo.
FL Captain Sinmbo. And they kicked him out of the seminary. Next he started a nightclub. After that, he moved to the place they now call Corridor Backsia. He was the first person who lived in this area. When he came there it was all trees everywhere, no houses, no nothing. Everybody went to Backsia’s ceremonies to experience what you call Vodou. He loved Vodou. He made things neat, very clean, and he built his temple just like a church. And I was in this temple all day playing. And that’s how he became one of the famous houngans. In Bel Air, everywhere you go, you ask somebody for Backsia, André Backsia, people know Backsia.
He did a lot of things to help people, to make beautiful ceremonies. His wife had a shop, a fabric shop, and gave people fabric to make nice clothes to come to the ceremonies. Everything was beautiful in the Vodou. And he initiated a lot of big people. That’s the same work I’m trying to do. To bring people to Vodou society, to make the Vodou large, and as beautiful as I see it. Because a lot of people think bad things about Vodou, say bad things about Vodou. I hear people say it, but when I was growing up I saw my grandfather doing positive things, making nice ceremonies, helping people, making people feel comfortable when they came to a Vodou society.
MZ There are people who still live in houses built by him.
FL Yeah, exactly! Exactly.
MZ He helped people, he gave them places to live, he employed them.
FL He gave them land so they could build their little houses to make a village, a Vodou village. That’s how I grew up, that’s how I see it, and that’s what I want to do, exactly the same.
You asked me a question, I don’t think I answered that question, how I became a priest.
MZ All right, the final question is, How did you find yourself becoming involved in the Vodou?
FL I was a boy, that was around 1983. And my grandfather passed. I was his only grandson.
MZ About how old were you then?
FL I was around 16. I didn’t know what to do. Everybody kept telling me I’m the one who’s going to have everything, and that was not my dream, to become a Vodou priest.
MZ You wanted to be Michael Jackson, I remember you telling me that.
FL (laughter) Yeah.
MZ You wanted to be a pop star.
FL Exactly! Not a Vodou priest who serves the lwa. Finally, after everyone kept telling me the same thing, I started going to Jeannot’s house.
MZ Jean Phillipe Jeannot, another famous houngan in Bel Air.
FL People kept telling me I have to be initiated, I have to do this, I have to do that. One day I went out and my life was put in danger, really, in danger. I was in Kenscoff.
MZ What happened in Kenscoff?
FL My best friend, Michelet, he got his girl pregnant. And I looked older than him, more presentable. And he asked me to go to her people and say that I was Michelet. So Michelet and I went up to Kenscoff to talk with the parents. At about eight o’clock, it’s getting late, and we can’t find a car to go back home. So now we have to walk from Kenscoff to Petionville. We get as far as a place called Fermat. And I see a little kerosene lamp; there’s no electricity. And I see a guy that I know named Ti-Jac. I tell him that we can’t find a car to go back home. He says, “No problem,” we can stay there and sleep at his house. We walk and I see a big house like a mansion. He says he is working there, no problem, we can sleep there.
So we go inside, and the next thing you know I see a guy coming toward us wearing a long black dress. And Ti-Jac says, “Okay, I’ll be back,” and leaves. And then another man comes along with a long black dress and a machete and he bangs the machete on the floor in front of us. Blang! I say “Michelet, I’m scared, what are we going to do?”
At that time, I didn’t know how to drink, not alcohol. And I say to this guy, “I would like to drink something, some alcohol, you don’t have any alcohol?”
He said, “I don’t have any, but where you saw me earlier, they sell some. Do you want to drink?”
And I say, “Yes.” And then I go out and buy a big bottle of alcohol. Michelet and I, we spoke a language called jargon. Even if you could speak Creole, when we spoke in front of you, you could not understand what we said. So I tell Michelet in jargon that I’m going to make the man with the machete drunk. Michelet says, “Okay, but we’re not going back inside the house.” We pass the bottle back and forth many times, but I never drank anything, and Michelet never drank anything; the guy drank all the bottle by himself.
I really don’t know how we played that trick on him. We see a car coming with somebody inside the car, two people holding a third person. The person was screaming “Help! Whoa!” And the man took my arm and he says, “Let’s go inside,” and I say, “No, I’m not going.” He takes Michelet, Michelet says, “No, I am not going,” and the two of us start running. As we are running, I hear something say to me, This is Precinct de Fermat. I hear that again in my head, and I see the police precinct on top of the hill. We get to the precinct. And the gendarmes take us inside and interview us, ask us why we are there. And after, they say, “At six o’clock AM, you’re going to take the bus back to Port-au-Prince.”
They said, “Don’t take the first one, take the second or the third one.” At that time, there was a lot of kidnapping in Haiti. People were kidnapping people, just like that. The next morning we get to Port-au-Prince, where my mother lived. When I get there, everybody, my mother, Jeannot, a neighbor called Amise, everybody was possessed. Before I could say anything, the spirits told me exactly what happened the night before. They say when I asked for the alcohol, it’s not me asking for the alcohol. They told me to ask for the alcohol. They gave me a way to escape. After that I started going back and forth to Jeannot’s house, I got interested, so interested in Vodou. And that’s how I became initiated as a sou pwen. I initiated as a sou pwen at Jeannot’s house in 1985.
MZ So Jeannot was already a priest?
FL He was.
MZ Who initiated Jeannot?
FL Babo. Babo was initiated by my grandfather, André Backsia. Babo initiated Jeannot, Jeannot initiated me, and after that Haiti became upside-down, everything upside-down, and a year later, I left Haiti, on February 27, 1987, on a Wednesday. That’s when I came to perform with St. Joseph’s Home For Boys, and we spent two weeks in Disney World. After that, East Saint Louis. And when I came to the United States I wasn’t interested in Vodou, to be a priest, to tell people I was a priest.
MZ You hid all of that for a while, you didn’t tell anybody.
FL Never, never, never!
MZ The only person who knew was Père Luc Lacroix.
FL When I went to the ceremony, Père Luc knew me, where I come from, that I am André Backsia’s grandson, but I felt ashamed, because when I went to a Vodou ceremony, I performed for money, as a drummer. At that time, the drummer from my country was low. You understand? To survive I played drums for a while. Just to survive. But everywhere I went the spirits were always telling me I have to initiate, to take asson. At that time the only drummer people went to for ceremonies was me. They didn’t go to anybody else, they ‚didn’t want anybody else. I went to a ceremony on Christmas Eve, and I had just bought a car. And when I came out, they had—
MZ Slashed all the tires.
FL All the tires, broken all the windows. The car was flat, you know? I said, “No, No, I’m not going to take this, I should be respected. I have to be a priest.” This happened in December 1996, and in February 1997 I initiated.
MZ Asogwe. High priest.
FL I became a high priest.
MZ And everything is better.
FL Yeah. Everything, believe me! (laughter) Yeah.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Vargas-Suarez Universal and Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Vladimir Cybil and Jerry Philogene, Carlos Eire and Silvana Paternostro, David Scott and Stuart Hall, Evelyne Trouillot, Sibylle Fisher, Carlos B. Cordova and Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Damas “Fanfan” Louis and Michael Zwack, and Peniel Guerrier and Yvonne Daniel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee