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Leah Gordon tells us that before Lent, in Jacmel, Haiti, on the so-called mardi gras (Fat Tuesday), groups of Haitians go out on the streets improvising satirical shows that focus on politics and on everything else. In those shows and in that party, Gordon points out that there is a hint of “clandestine Vodou”.
Two things interested me in Gordon's account: the mixture of Vodou and carnival and the notion of “clandestine Vodou”.
Gordon, on the mix of Vodou and carnival, presents the story of Andre Ferner, a servant of La Siren. She dresses up as La Siren at the carnival because of her love for this Lwa. Her costume transforms her into the very mermaid who walks down the street in disguise (so that people don't see, for example, her fish head and tail) to join the festivities. Through Andre's act, we can realize how it is possible that the spirits of Vodou themselves become revelers.
Furthermore, it is evident that Vodou acts at another end, as a strong inspiration. Carnival is a time of role reversal, so it is the time to play with the Lwas. This is illustrated well by Gordon in the story of Dieuli Laurent, who dresses as a drag Zaka (the Lwa of agriculture).
Thus, as an integral part of Haitian life, Vodou proves to be not only an important factor, but also a structuring factor for carnival festivities. It is not that different from what happens in Brazil. Here, samba schools and some carnival street groups (such as Cacique de Ramos, in Rio de Janeiro) have inseparable links with religious expressions such as Candomblé. It is quite common to find stories and characters from the Afro-Brazilian cosmology at the parades and in lyrics of sambas.
Now about the “clandestine Vodou”. I'm not sure what Gordon meant by that. I confess that I did not have access to her book on Kanaval but only to a speech she presented somewhere. Perhaps she meant that during the carnival there is a free, unrestricted Vodou, in which everything is allowed and that does not pass through the eyes and the ceremony of a Hounfor. It would be this very free Vodou that would make room for things like drag Zaka to bloom.
However, the notion of a clandestine Vodou seems very strange to me. Vodou is a spirituality that revolves around spirits. Each house does Vodou in a certain way. In northern Haiti the expression generally follows a different line from the one that is followed in the south. In other words, Vodou is plural, alive and diverse.
Using the “clandestine” quality makes it seem like it is an unsanctioned and non-standard thing. However, there is no central authority in Vodou. Still, if the spirits move the servers to express themselves in a certain way, how could this be “clandestine”?
Of course, I'm being very bold. Leah Gordon spent years and years in Haiti studying the local carnival. She is an authority. I, on the other hand, have never seen the carnival in Haiti. I'm talking about what I have read and what little I know. However, I like to think that Gordon wouldn't mind my boldness. Maybe she even would take it as a compliment. After all, her work is being recognized in the best way: by making people think.
I hope you all enjoyed this little reflection. Have a good carnival, be it here, in Haiti or wherever you are.
Gordon, Leah. Kanaval: a People´s History of Haiti. 2010. Small Axe. Duke University Press. Number 33 (Volume 13, Number 3). Pp. 135-141