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per amica silentia lunae

or, across the ferny brae with the evil voodoo celt

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going to a party where no one's still alive
So, I finally worked through my impressions of the Day of the Dead ritual we attended in New Orleans. Perhaps not as lyrical as my earlier piece about the cemetery, but I think it gets the idea across... any mistakes as to the order in which things happened, terminology, etc. are my fault.

Arriving in a Voodoo clown-car

The United Cab pulls up to the house on Piety Street and out we pile- five of us, it's like a voodoo clown-car. Gods know how we squeezed us all in there... mohnkern was in front, castalusoria, ravenrose and I in the back, with monsteralice draped elegantly across our laps... the cab was scraping its frame over bumps all the way, although the cabbie didn't complain or even bat a lash.

A woman at the door beckons us in. The first couple of rooms are lit only by the candles on the shrines and altars. There are several- all with a wondrous and confusing bricolage of statuettes, pictures, jewelry, flowers, bottles, and less identifiable things. Most are for the Gede and the morts, the spirits we are here to honor tonight. We drift to the kitchen to drop off our food offerings, then out into the back courtyard, which is defined by the back of the house and the front of a cottage on the same property.

It's like taking a half-step out of this world. We are immediately confronted with an immense papier-mâché sculpture hanging from a tree above the stairs- a black and purple skeletal figure, astride a white horse. It's a good intro to the darkly festive atmosphere- more altars, candles, strings of skeleton lights, chili-pepper lights, sun-moon-star lights; there's a big koi pond and lots of greenery. In our black and purple clothes, we fit right in- there are several dressed like us, although more are wearing white with purple headscarves. There's a quietly welcoming vibe here- no one questions our presence, even though we are complete strangers.

Occasional drumming begins to rumble from the alley behind the cottage, and many of the white-clothed folk (from the long strands of beads criss-crossed across their chests, I'd say they are the hounsis, or initiates of this vodou Society) begin to filter back there. Eventually, we are ushered outside as well.

Calm before the storm

It is cramped in the alley- later, someone says that over a hundred people attended this ceremony, and I believe it. In the center stands a black cross, some four feet high, on a platform- it looks somewhat like a grave-marker, and is decorated with tophats, bottles of liquor, candles, feathers, pictures of the Gede, and may other things. Similar offerings line the base of the fence at the other side of the alley; the fence itself is painted with more pictures of the Gede, as well as many of his names and veve symbols. A trellis-like thing festooned with bones leans against the wall, and a formal tailcoat and other dark clothing is hung to one side.

There is a brief orientation speech by the manbo (priestess), and then it begins. There are prayers, drumming, ritual presentations of machete and sequined flags. The hounsis present more offerings, food and more liquor and tobacco; there is a dance to this (as in everything here)- stepping and turning, left and right, bobbing in reverence then making a cross with the offering before it is presented. Then we are allowed to come forward with our own contributions- I am giving a pair of sunglasses with one lens knocked out (symbolic of the Gede's ability to see into the worlds of the living and the dead), decorated with skeletons and purple, black and white beads.

Then the Litanie begins- a series of songs, each with their own drum rhythm, invoking the lwa. The singer's voice is strong and melodic, and some of the other hounsis act as a chorus. The first songs all begin with the singer calling out "Ayibobo!"; we respond in kind, and those who can spin around in place- or try to. castalusoria and I are in the latter group; we are pressed tight against the fence and find it hard to move. The songs are in Kreyol, but I can pick out a word here and there- mostly names of lwa: Legba, Ayizan, Marassa, Loko… It is oddly lulling, with an increasing build of energy lying behind the scenes.

Enter the guests of honor

Much like the slow climb up the first slope of a roller-coaster, as a matter of fact. The peace is shattered most wonderfully- fireworks, noisemakers, the cracking of a whip. Everyone is bellowing "BWAAAA!!". The songs are now to the Gede, and "BWA!" is apparently the proper response; the rhythms of the drum are saucier, and laughter punctuates the lyrics. And the Gede begins to make themselves known- one was apparently present even before this point (I remember raucous laughter from the other side of the alley); now I can see his "horse", who yells "BWA!" even louder than the others, makes comments like "motherf****in' BWA!", and smokes a cigar while frantically flipping it up and down in his mouth.

The drummers change to a driving rhythm, and dancers begin to circle around the cross. The one Gede I have noticed so far is with them; he has acquired the arm of a plastic baby doll from somewhere, and wears it tucked under his purple head-scarf as he dances, grinning ear to ear. The manbo and houngan begin to circulate among the crowd; they use their asson rattles to "attune" each person, and then they are free to dance, or clap along with the beat, or just watch. I decide to dive right in, as do monsteralice and castalusoria.

It is crowded and intense; there are constant exhortations to keep moving, keep circling. We do our best, even though there are constant disruptions. The first Gede now sports the full rig- sunglasses, tailcoat, sequined bottle, tophat (still with the doll arm peeping out from under it). He whips around to confront monsteralice, demanding to know who she is and what she wants; she gives her name and asks for healing. He raises his bottle and she is warned "close your eyes!" just in time; he anoints her face and head copiously with rum.

Another Gede rides a worshipper and begins to leap about, laughing raucously- this was apparently Bawon Kalfou. Then a female hounsi is ridden; the Gedes raucously greet her as "Brijit" as she glares and hisses demands. It is Manman Brijit, Bawon Samdi's wife; soon a cloth is found to tie around her head- it makes her look a bit like an old cartoon of a dental patient, but I know that it is the cloth used to keep the jaw of a corpse from gaping open. Shivers...

Danse Macabre

Now we're down in it. Brijit, now that she is appeased by an offering of rum in her particular purple glass cup, laughs gaily and sprays a mouthful of it towards the feet of one of the other hounsis. This acts like the connection of a circuit- the woman twists, writhes, and is ridden by Gedelia, who meows loudly and proceeds to spin another worshipper counterclockwise, triggering possession. Suddenly, the dance takes on the feeling of a tornado, with the presence of the lwa leaping about the circle like lightning. At one point there are two of them beginning to "ride" worshippers simultaneously- one of the Gedes, overseeing one possession with great amusement, begins to call out "Manbo!" in a nasal and imperious voice, but she is engaged in helping with another.

I am dancing near castalusoria and see her supporting a woman who is being ridden; the woman is bent over backward, still undulating in the dance. Another one gets a pair of sunglasses with one lens out (not my offering, alas) and tries to wear them along with the ones he already has on- this is less than successful, so he puts them on the back of his head instead. The dance is now like some kind of merry-go-round at a dark carnival; infused with mordant humor and running under its own power. It is exciting and disturbing… it's like the air is charged with mystic ozone. I find myself wondering what would happen if I felt the world begin to fade on me; it doesn't, and I'm both relieved and just the least bit disappointed.

The Gede that castalusoria supported now begins dancing under her own power; she seizes a bottle of rum and begins giving drinks to people (including monsteralice, who seems to be the lucky winner tonight…) We never figured out what that Gede's name was; as well as Kalfou, Brigitte and Gedelia, Gede Nimbo, Bawon Lakwa, Bawon Samdi, and Bawon Simitye were all apparently there at times. I'm not sure which was which... I don't have that kind of knowledge.

Dead man's party

Eventually, things wind down, and I realize how hungry I am just as the manbo tells everyone to go and eat. The first Gede has already acquired some fried chicken, and spends about as much time gesturing with it as eating it. We file back in to the house and fall ravenously upon the food, and the energy changes to something more closely resembling a potluck dinner party. But there is enough going on to belie that first impression- Kalfou and one of the other Gedes can be seen having intense, quiet conversations with various folks; the woman who was ridden by Brigitte has a mort (ancestor spirit) in her for awhile; the spirit is a bit confused (she think's it's her birthday party and she's drunk too much punch) but pleasant. The first Gede reappears from the sanctuary room and stalks past us, grabbing mohnkern's ass as he goes by.

You'd think that I'd be eager to talk to the lwa, but I'm oddly diffident. Some of it is akin to feeling tongue-tied around celebrities; I just don't know what to say, don't know what to ask for, and am afraid of looking like a fool. Some of it is a strong impression that if there is a reason for one of them to speak to me, they will do so. This pays off- while we are waiting to process to the cemetery, the first Gede catches my eye and greets me, asking me how I am. When I reply "not too bad", he insists on teaching me the Kreyol for the phrase, which sounds something like "pa pay mal." (Do you know the actual spelling, castalusoria?) He asks if monsteralice is my "beautiful woman" (the Gede are foulmouthed, but almost never swear at people; instead, they tend to be casually friendly to men and complimentary to women). Then he wants to know if I cook for her, and when was the last time I do so; he instructs me to cook a special dish for her, the first chance I get. He then tells me I'm a lucky man; when I fervently agree, he seems satisfied, and goes back to apparently trying to get one of the female attendees to "marry" him (a common way for vodouistes to forge a relationship with a lwa).

The same Gede is still with us when we return from the cemetery, still in high spirits although perhaps a little more subdued. When monsteralice and I give up on getting a cab (it is well past midnight and this is not the best section of the city), the head drummer very nicely gives us a ride back to Esplanade. As we pile into the back of her truck, the Gede is still there, eyes still covered by dark glasses, yet seeing perfectly well into the early hours of All Souls' Day.

Ayibobo! Bwa!

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Ok NOW im Jealous

Sounds like something that everyone should do once in their life.

Or more.


New Orleans.

You are a lucky man.

Sounds like something that everyone should do once in their life

Yes. Do it. The Vodou society that hosted this does it every year, and they are open to all who are sincere and respectful.

If you ever want to go, I can give you contact info for them and other cool suggestions.

I'll have to do that, when my life makes a little more sense.

For lack of a better word, wow.

On the one hand, I'm wishing I could have experienced something like that. On the other, I have such an approach/avoidance relationship with the lwa/orishas that ... well, I'm not sure that what. I probably would have pull myself so far out of what was happening that I wouldn't be able to enjoy it. Then again, perhaps I'd finally be able to abandon myself to the energies I've been dancing around for more than five years now.... Either way, it sounds like a phenomenal event, and I'm glad that you were able to fully experience it.

If we can get Kevin and Kathy back for FSG 19, you should go to some of their workshops and talk to them. Nice people, very approachable...

So I've heard. But, in the the perversity of this approach/avoidance thing, that just makes it more likely that I'll stay away from them!

Quite seriously, though -- if they come back, I probably will try to make it to one of their workshops. I've got to get beyond this block one of these days; it's getting too darned annoying....

So, have you cooked for her yet?

Yes, and it was delicious!

Very cool.

Do you know the actual spelling?

The closest I can think of in straight French would be "pas trop mal," I think ("Not too badly.") I can't think of an appropriate word that would sound like "pay," but my French is pretty rusty.

Super cool!

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