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Monday, July 16, 2007

Vodou: Tokyo Summer Festival

ヴードゥー

Thanks to the sponsorship of the Tokyo Summer Festival, organized by the Arion-Edo Foundation, I was able to attend a performance on Saturday of Haiti’s folk religion, Vodou. It took place in Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, at 2pm.

Vodou is a melding of the Christianity of Haiti’s slavemasters, the French, and the animist religions of the slaves brought over from West Africa. Unfortunately, in its Westernized spelling of ‘voodoo,’ the religion has been so thoroughly stigmatized and stereotyped as something scary and evil, that the only way to break those misconceptions is to see it for yourself.

I had no idea of what to expect. The stage was dominated by a leafless tree that rose up to the ceiling, around which was twined a massive green snake. To the left of the tree was an altar dominated by a crucifix topped by a hat-wearing skull. Flanking the tree were two religious banners, and to the right of the tree was a collection of drums.

The performance itself was less a ‘performance’ of the sort you sat down and took in and more, As MC and lead pecussionist Frisner Augustine soon made clear, ‘a party’, a celebration that the audience was expected to share in. And share in it did! To the incredibly sophisticated rhythms being beaten out by the four percussionists (led by the MC), the audience was asked to keep up a simple clapped rhythm – one that had to be continually reprompted when the drumming got too syncopated to readily follow.

The dancing was the main spectacle. Three women and a man displayed the ritualized dancing, going through several changes of costume and performing a number of ceremonial rites.

How staged or genuine it was I do not know, but every now and then one would succumb to the inrush of the spirits and stumble, convulse, make cries and writhe, while the others tended to him or her – and the beat went on. The climax was an extended session of spirit possession by one of the women, whom the others seated, and, yelping and rolling her eyes, she administered a healing ritual to members of the audience who lined up for her to run her hands over their head and faces.

The colors were vivid, the drumming, bewildering in its complexity, was mesmerizing.

Being able to see vodou for what it is: a party, a celebration, dance, worship, love, was a privilege that not many get to enjoy, and the willingness of the team to come from as far away as they did and bare their spirit as gorgeously as they did is what had the crowd at times literally on its feet.

(Photographs by Shinji Takehara, courtesy of Arion-Edo Foundation.)

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