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WNYC News Article

February 25, 2013

WNYC News – Friday, March 26, 2010 By Marianne McCune

152466This is the season of daffodils, St. Patrick’s Day, Passover, and Easter — but also the Haitian Vodou ceremony celebrating “Damballah.” Damballah is a serpent spirit and his ceremony is usually quite joyful. With many Haitians still mourning victims of the earthquake, some Vodou priests and priestesses in the New York area decided not to hold the ceremony this year. But others did. And WNYC’s Marianne McCune attended one in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush.

Clarel Felix is a Vodou priest and an herbalist. His business card says, “If you have problems concerning business, love, lawsuit, money, health — ask for Felix.” “Readings, Good Luck Bath, Remove All Evil Spirit & Bad Luck.” Haitians come to his temple in Apartment 1D and call the spirits. His wife Soline says the Sunday before the earthquake, the spirits were crying.

“I say why, what is going to happen, come on tell us!” she says. “The spirits say something going to happen in Haiti, it’s not going to be easy. So we going to be sad and cry. We want to know more! The spirit say, ‘That’s our message!”

Others in the Haitian Vodou community tell similar stories of warnings from the spirits. When it came, the earthquake killed several members of Felix’s family –- including Soline’s sister and niece.

“It was really rough for me,” she says. “It was really very, very sad. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I can’t focus. I’d been crying, crying all the time.”

When it came time to hold the serpent spirit ceremony, some felt Haitians were still too much in mourning to go ahead with it. But Felix says he decided they must not lower their voices because of the tragedy.

“C’etait juste un ceremonie…”

He says they needed to ask God for grace and forgiveness –- particularly for those who died in the quake and could not be buried as Vodou tradition dictates. It was to help them go in peace, he says.

“God, we know you are the father of everyone. Let us see your presence. We know you are powerful.”

This is the call to the Damballah serpent spirit.

The ceremony doesn’t begin with the call. It starts with prayers in the Catholic tradition. It’s around 10 in the evening, in apartment 1D. The windows are closed, there’s a fan blowing, but the room is already steamy. For this ceremony -– linked with the catholic St. Patrick -– participants are dressed in white and green: flowing dresses and shiny head-wraps. They bless a candle-lit shrine with alcohol. A table of food awaits guests and the spirits who will inhabit them.

The spirit Damballah eats only egg, flour, and syrup. And as the prayers turn to Vodou chants and songs in Creole, Damballah arrives. One woman falls to the floor, her body convulsing, squiggling and squirming, until the others manage to hold her body still. They put the egg, covered with syrup and spoonfuls of flour, on the floor near her mouth, then cover her with a sheet while she eats.

It’s not a big Vodou ceremony, maybe 20 people walk in circles around a pillar, a few dozen more observe in chairs lining the walls. Next Soline becomes rigid and slightly fierce, as her body is taken over by the spirit Maitresse Ezulie. She lunges around the room, her head-wrap comes off, and her long straight hair becomes wild. The others help quiet her, then she circles the room, firmly shaking each guest’s hands. Some she man-hugs. Or she touches a cheek. And when the spirit finally leaves her, she says she has no idea what’s just happened.

“I feel so dizzy, and dizzy, dizzy, dizzy. You know, I don’t know. After the people come and tell you, ‘Oh my god, I see you on the floor, look at you, look at you!’ I say, ‘Me!’”

Another guest, Pol Masidor only recently experienced his first trance.

“You feel like a tremor in your spine, and you don’t know what it is, what’s going on, what happened to me! Then you realize, well, the spirit just went over you. You start floating somewhere, you know, you start like going on to another dimension. And then” — he snaps his fingers — “that’s the dark.”

Felix says usually during the Damballah ceremony, the spirits laugh, have fun, dance.

“On voit dans cette ceremonie il n’y a pas tellement de joie…”

In this ceremony, he says, there was not much joy. Sometimes the spirits came and couldn’t express themselves. Sometimes they cried.

“We always have party for the spirits,” Soline says. “For this one we very sad, we not happy the way we supposed to be happy.”

“C’est juste venir, manger, et après ils s’en vont.”

Tonight, the spirits just came, ate, and left. Still, Soline says – despite their sadness and her own sense of loss, it made her feel strong.

“Yeah a lot. A lot,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m more than 10 people.”

“I used to hear a lot against the Vodou,” Masidor says.

Masidor says he grew up Catholic -– but his grandmother made sure he understood a little about Vodou, too.

“I’m not saying there is no dark side, but mostly Vodou is healing,” he says. “Vodou is the help for a nation that never have nobody to stand, no one, even their own people, to stand for them and defend them. So my people find strength and trust in the spirits.”

“All the people think everybody who practice Vodou is the dumb people,” Felix says. “No, everybody can practice Vodou.”

Felix conjures his English to make this last point.

“In Vodou we got peace, we got love, we got fraternity.”

And for some of those who joined him in calling on the serpent spirit Damballah this month, there was also comfort.